EPS Review #28 - Trilobite!

Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey, 2000

This was an Amazon one-click purchase for me, because I am on their Science mailing list. Wow, a whole book on trilobites, I thought, what could be more interesting? Click!

The plates are terrific. The text is a bit long-winded, and bears skimming, particularly the overview of the Gould/Conway Morris slugfest, which is pretty boring by now. Still, it is interesting to read about how paleontologists finally figured out what the trilobites legs looked like (much more rarely preserved than the shell), and how the trilobite experts were right and the paleomagnetists were wrong on some continental-drift dating arguments: a proud victory of slow, descriptive science over the technologists. Some people spend many years slowly cataloguing the trilobites in a given area. Fortey covers 300 million years of trilobite evolution, a big success story, though they finally died out completely. He isn't much interested in horseshoe crabs, their indirect descendants, though he had the identical experience to me, in Thailand, eating their orange roe (stored in their heads): rancid, fishy, chewy stuff. The section on trilobite eyes is good. They were made of calcite, that double-imaging crystal you sometimes see in natural history shops. The trilobite calcite lenses were oriented along the only (c) axis that gives a single image. Fortey then quotes "those are pearls that were his eyes" because pearls are also calcium carbonate. In particular, the schizochroal eye of the Phacops trilobite was extremely complex, with big spherical calcite lenses, cupped by a layer with more magnesium to correct the spherical aberration. Clever.

Finally, there are some field stories, such as when he was stung by a giant bee in China, that are good for a laugh out loud. He also seems to have a strange affection for his fellow commuters on the 8:02 from Henley-on-Thames. I wish I could say the same for those on the Thameslink. But I always think of an old ad of a Beauty Academy on the NYC subway: It's a Beautiful Life When You Love What You Do. And Fortey loves Trilobites.

Martin wrote: Is it worth getting then? What's the Gould/Conway Morris controversy, btw?

I wrote: If you don't mind skimming (I do) it's probably worth a read. The controversy is over how fast evolution moves, and whether the Burgess Shale "explosion" was really an explosion, and really had many new phyla ("fuck! another new phylum" was an amusing quote) that have no descendants. Ad hominem, lots of paleontologists hate Gould because he has been such a successful populariser, though he gets a few things wrong, and is pretty smug.

Martin wrote: Yes I agree on Gould - he plays the "man of the people" too much - he should have been a politician. His books are well written and amusing, but he never risks openly supporting an unpopular, or nonPC view. I suppose it's a result of being in America, particularly Harvard, in the last part of the 20th century. Although he clearly knows his stuff (well he would have to), he has led a lot of people down the garden path, more or less deliberately, by his apparently PC versions of Darwinism. Still, promising for my booklist, which has several on evolution in it!

Tom wrote: That subway ad made a lasting impression on me too. I hope you're doing okay at work.