Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Greatly Belated Book Reviews: The Evolution & Extinction Of The Dinosaurs

(Incidentally, I can't use YouTube right now. I downloaded the latest Adobe Flash Player update, and apparently it isn't reverse compatible. Take heed. My little brother was really upset when he found out he couldn't play any Flash games.)

This book (best I can do for a reference is this page) is a textbook. (I suppose I should abbreviate it: E&EotD. There we go.) Thus, it's kind of a funny thing to review.

The version of it in my possession was purchased for a college class on dinosaurs. (Fun class. Only one of that prof's classes I never fell asleep in-whoops, did I type that out?) It turned out that it was not a required book for the class, but none of the notation stuff actually mentioned that-it was described as a required book. (The prof provided a CD ROM and notes based on his lectures. No books at all.) Darnit, there goes fifty bucks or so.

Anyway, it was only recently that I cracked the darned thing. And this may simply be a function of me liking dinosaurs and science, but I really enjoyed it.

Yes, this is one of the best textbooks I've ever seen. I've never picked up some of my old college textbooks again (I've considered burning a few, because they're just that evil), but this one, it turns out, is not only focused on a fascinating subject, but well-written, easy to read, and actually enjoyable.

On the subject matter itself, I should note-my edition is some twelve or thirteen years old. It's way outta date. My computer that age isn't this bad, in some respects. But the general material is mostly sound, and if you've had your head between your legs for thirty years or more over dinosaur information (or even just have learned it from Jurassic Park), this book can set you straight to understand modern discoveries in a better, more comprehensible light.

The book's focus is quite narrow-while periodically mentioning non-dinosaurs, it mostly ignores them, and certainly does not analyze their coevolution with the dinosaurs. It actually discusses birds, since technically birds are theropods, though it should be noted that bird fossils as such are bloody rare and hardly ever in good condition. (If it weren't for a large and tranquil prehistoric lake, we would have had no idea that Archaeopteryx was a bird at all.)

The book reminds the reader that all information in its pages is subject to later revision, as new discoveries of seemingly minor import can have huge implications. It points out that, out of "dinosaurs" as such, we may have discovered perhaps as much as 25% of dinosaur species-but possibly as little as 8%. Thus, we may discover two or three specimens in the next twelve years that cause us to reevaluate modern positions on dinosaur life as much as we have in the last twelve.

It also reminds the reader that everything considering dinosaurs is almost entirely speculation, something many of us forget.

Anyway, its holistic approach to discussing evolution is very helpful for a more general understanding of the subject, and it's actually inspired me to explore it in a fictional setting. (A book I may review on another occasion, The Future Is Wild, explores evolution on purely theoretical grounds. The main difference in what I'm considering is that it'd be an Earthlike but alien ecosystem. Rarely do you see such in fiction considered from a full evolutionary standpoint. So many extraterrestrial ecosystems we see might as well be dodosaur ecosystems, equipped with "evolutionary" tools because the writers felt like it.)

And the book makes no assumptions of the reader beyond "college level reader." It avoids excessive terminology where it can, and explains itself clearly when it can't, and generally is a very effective book at what it does.

More than I can say on a lot of the textbooks I've read. (And I've read a lot-I used to read them for fun back in high school. No, seriously. My high school and junior high both had these really thin science textbooks that we'd only get for a couple of weeks before switching out for new ones, and I'd read the parts I didn't have to for kicks. I can be kinda weird.)

-Signing off.

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