Tuesday, May 6, 2014


This week: a book review.

As this blog is first and foremost a place for me to practice my nonfiction writing, and as much of my reading time is spent reading nonfiction, I thought I might occasionally post book reviews on here. All were originally posted on Goodreads

Last week I finished "Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution" by Richard Fortey. My review is below.

This book does shed light on trilobites - their biology, ecology, evolution and even behavior. For non-scientists, there is plenty of explanation of scientific methods etc. These get pretty repetitive, enough so that I suspect everyone will be skimming/skipping these sections by half way through. 

Personally I found that it was weighed down by the author's self-involvement. Fortey attempts to bring the book alive with lots and lots of personal anecdotes. It works okay in the beginning but gets old after a while. Part of the problem is that some of these additions add little to the topics he is illustrating. It is enough of an issue that I found myself pretty bored by the last through of the book. The bigger issue is his ego which comes through loud and clear. 

Fortey loves to talk about his own discoveries and accomplishments. That is warranted in many places but it happens so frequently that it left me wondering what other researchers have found. It's not that he doesn't mention the successes of others, but many of those are historical figures and the current ones are uncommon and frequently are colleagues of his. Cronyism is nothing new in such books, but combined with the giant number of personal contributions to the field and the overall paucity of others makes it stand out. 

His acknowledgement of dissenting opinions is even rarer. Most are only snidely hinted at. For instance, he mentions that one of the new species he named was contested by others but doesn't say anything else; his dismissal of them is so strong he doesn't bother to go into detail. It was a missed opportunity to discuss the process of identifying and naming new species or groups. He does eventually discuss that fascinating issue and gives some good examples of similar research and arguments making his lack of detail on that particular story all the more confusing. 

For the most part he avoids the vitriol characteristic of Richard Dawkins and some other popular science writers, even calling Dawkins to task for it at one point. One exception is his in depth discussion of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould is well done but odd in it's detail. I actually wondered if he had a particular problem with Gould, and I'm still not sure (he does mention Gould in a more positive light later but not in any really detail). BTW - I am aHUGE fan of Gould's writings, so I'm admittedly biased here but I saw no issue with Fortey's points, rather I was taken aback by how much attention Gould and his book got in that section.

Richard Fortey with one of his beloved research subjects. Photo obtained from Age of Wonder

The end result is a mix of the really interesting and the really tiresome. Sadly, these are common issues in popular science books. Brian Greene & George Schaller are great example of scientists (non-scientists writing about science generally never have such issues) that have been able to write great popular books on their fields. 

Richard Fortey is a world-renowned expert on trilobites and the depth of knowledge he displays is wonderful. This is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in trilobites or paleontology, just be prepared to skim through sections of it. 


The original review can be found here: 

Other Goodreads reviews of the book can be here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/373562.Trilobite

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