Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species

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An award-winning biologist takes us on the dramatic expeditions that unearthed the history of life on our planet.

Just 150 years ago, most of our world was an unexplored wilderness. Our sense of how old it was? Vague and vastly off the mark. And our sense of our own species¡¯ history? A set of fantastic myths and fairy tales. Fossils had been known for millennia, but they were seen as the bones of dragons and other imagined creatures.

In the tradition of The Microbe Hunters and Gods, Graves, and Scholars, Sean Carroll¡¯s Remarkable Creatures celebrates the pioneers who replaced our fancies with the even more amazing true story of how our world evolved.

Carroll recounts the most important discoveries in two centuries of national history ¡ª from Darwin¡¯s trip around the world to CharlesWalcott¡¯s discovery of pre-Cambrian life in the Grand Canyon; from Louis and Mary Leakey¡¯s investigation of our deepest past in East Africa to the trailblazers in modern laboratories who have located a time clock in our DNA. Join him in a rousing voyage of discovery, from the epic journeys of pioneering naturalists to the breakthroughs making headlines today.

Customer Reviews:

  • Adventures in Evolutionary Science
    As a non-scientist, I was fascinated by this book. Sean Carroll has written a good book about various discoveries in evolutionary science for the non-scientist. The book is also laced with many helpful black and white illustrations. A word of caution, I would not recommend this book to someone who does not accept scientific evolutionary theory.

    Dr. Carroll's fascinating book is divided into an introduction and three main divisions. The introduction deals with Alfred von Humboldt and his exploration of nature in South America. Humboldt's scientific adventures and his seven volume Personal Narratives inspired other naturalists to explore their world. Charles Darwin even took Humboldt's Personal Narratives with him on the Beagle.

    A quick recap of the rest of the book:

    Part One of the Remarkable Adventures tells the scientific adventures of the founders of evolutionary science - Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and Henry Bates.

    Part Two revolves around fossils and paleontology. We learn about Java Man, birds as dinosaurs, and fish with fins used as feet. We learn about the men who discovered these fossils and how they found them. Eugene Dubois, Charles Wolcott and Neil Shubin are some of the scientists who are prominently mentioned in Part Two.

    Part Three follows evolutionary science as it relates to humans. The Leakeys, Olduvai Gorge, Neanderthals, Linus Pauling are some of the subjects discussed. After reading this part of the book I can see why my biology textbook said that one cannot understand biology without accepting evolutionary theory. I also learned how biology helped scientists understand how Neaderthals were/were not related to modern human beings.

    Remarkable Creatures is a very highly readable and interesting book. I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in science, evolution or scientific discoveries. I have already recommended this book to a few of my friends.
    ...more info
  • Timeless and timely
    Sean Carroll has written a wonderful history of the adventurers and scientists who have grappled with evidence and proof of evolution. It is no coincidence that this book is released during this bicentennial year of Darwin's birth, of course. The author has compiled concise tales about the major players in answering the great mystery of origins. From von Humboldt whose journeys and discoveries inspired Darwin, through to todays explorers on the leading edge of DNA research into lineage, this book offers a highly readable history for an educated audience. Carroll's sense of wonder is fully evident, along with a bit of humor and much clear explication.

    If you are a lay reader interested in getting up to speed on the latest in paleontology (the newest news on the oldest old) as well as getting a feel for the flow of science and discovery in what is still a hot political and religious subject, here's your ticket....more info
  • Another brilliant book on species development from Sean Carroll
    Carroll has written another splendid book. This one details the stories behind the evolutionary biologists responsible for the current state of the science. Written in a simpler style than his previous books, it contains just enough information to make it worthwhile reading for those who want to learn more about the historical development of evolutionary biology. Without the density of scientific language of his previous books readers will find it easier to understand, less work to plow through and because it is substantially shorter than his earlier books, easier to retain what has been read. Carroll brilliantly elucidates the emerging field of Evo-Devo never sacrificing scientific detail for the sake of clarity. He has written another splendid book that is strongly recommended to those for whom science never loses either its fascination or its relevance....more info
  • Swashbuckling evolutionists
    "Remarkable Creatures" relates the adventures of some of the great scientists who contributed to the development of evolutionary theory. The book is a curious blend, about 85% tales of adventure -- fires at sea, dust storms in the Gobi Desert, gunfights with bandits, earthquakes and malaria in the jungle, etc. -- and about 15% science.

    Carroll's earlier books on evo-devo were fairly technical. This book is suitable for high school students, especially those who may be entertained by adventure stories.

    The book has three major parts: (1) explorations that contributed to the early development of evolutionary theory; (2) explorations that led to the discovery of important transitional fossils; and (3) discoveries related to human origins.

    The tales of adventure include Humboldt's, Darwin's, and Wallace's globe-spanning voyages; Walcott's North American expeditions, including the Grand Canyon and Burgess Shale in Canada; the Leakey family's decades-long fossil-hunts in East Africa; and Shubin's hunt for the fishapod Tiktaalik. Some adventure stories included amusing anecdotes, like how an elephant-dung fight led to a major fossil find; and some of the characters were colorful enough to have been the models for characters and events in major motion pictures; but the main impression I got from some of the adventure stories was simply that exploring strange, new places was just a demanding, dangerous occupation and that sheer grit and determination, plus a healthy immune system, were as essential to the advance of science as the scientific method itself!

    The later chapters involved more lab work than field work. Much more civilized! The discovery of the extinction level event that apparently contributed to the violent end of the dinosaurs -- non-avian dinosaurs, anyway -- the research into the biological clock apparently contained in our DNA, and the dispute between the out-of-Africa and multi-regional hypotheses regarding man's own evolution were some of the highlights here.

    Carroll points out how some of the scientific discoveries refute some common creationist arguments. Some major fossil discoveries help refute the creationist argument that there are no transitional fossils; and some interesting experiments on bio-mimicry -- e.g., non-threatening animals that look like dangerous animals -- help confirm some of the predictions of natural selection, which refutes the bizarre argument that natural selection is a mere tautology with no predictive power. And some of the discoveries made during these dangerous explorations completely overturned the consensus view of the day, which helps refute the creationist whining about how science "dogmatically" rejects new ideas. In reality, what science actually rejects is ideas that aren't supported by credible evidence! But history shows over and over again that science is not only willing, but eager, to adopt new ideas that are supported by evidence. Unfortunately for creationists, they have little or no credible evidence to support their religiously motivated "theories."

    That said, I think Carroll was a bit careless with some of his statements, some of which came close to implying that evolution is inherently inconsistent with religion, which I think is clearly not the case. Most evolutionists in the U.S., for example, are probably Christians. Carroll also said that fossils were used to date a particular set of rocks, which is not an objectionable statement per se, since fossils can indeed be used to date rocks in narrowly defined situations; but Carroll should have taken time to explain that that's not the way rocks are usually dated, to avoid what will almost certainly happen now: creationists will use his statement to "prove" that evolutionists routinely use fossils to date rocks, which are then used improperly, in a circular manner, to date fossils....more info
  • Great companion to Darwin
    First, a caveat: If you are only going to read one book on evolution and/or natural selection, I would not go with this one. If you have gone a bit over the edge with this stuff, as I seem to have done lately, then this is a great companion book. After having read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, I went directly to the source and read Darwin's The Origin of Species (not a typo: I read the original version, before Darwin dropped the "The" from the title). Remarkable Creatures is a perfect follow-up read to Darwin. And for me, I get to support a local author: he is right here in Wisconsin!...more info
  • General interest collections strong in lay science will find this a lively survey
    REMARKABLE CREATURES: EPIC ADVENTURES IN THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGINS OF SPECIES offers the stories and biographies of three men - Darwin, Wallace, and Bates - who returned from their explorations each formulating the theory of evolution, blending these early explorers with experiences of later expeditions and pioneering naturalists in two centuries of scientific inquiry and discovery. General interest collections strong in lay science will find this a lively survey.
    ...more info
  • A Remarkable Book!
    Carroll offers an excellent summary of what we currently know about the evolution of humans and many types of animals -- and it is easily accessible to those who are not usually readers of books on "science" or natural history. I paired my own reading of "Remarkable Creatures" with a visit to NYC's Museum of Natural History, and was surprised to find myself intensely interested in displays which I would normally glide past. For this reason, I recommend this book to everyone who has an interest in biology, geology, or natural history -- but might not know where to begin learning.

    Most importantly, however, Carroll's "remarkable creatures" are not necessarily the *discoveries* of scientists and researchers, but *how* the scientists and researchers ended up making sense of what they found. Carroll recounts the personal histories of people like Darwin, Mary and Louis Leakey, Roy Chapman Andrews (possibly the Indiana Jones archetype), etc. and shows how their own personal lives helped synthesize new discoveries and technologies, in turn helping to shape their hypotheses on What Happened or What Something Is.

    If we normally think of scientists, archeologists, and paleontologists as simply names on a page, or old men shut up in laboratories or college classrooms, this book will definitely dispel that notion. These men (and women!) were hard-working voyagers who braved both natural elements and public criticism in the search for proof for their ideas.

    If you read this book, you're going to learn a lot more than just what happened to the dinosaurs....more info
  • Some of the most important scientific breakthroughs regarding our understanding of the history of life on earth
    Sean B. Carroll provides an extremely well-crafted narrative of a set of adventures and discoveries that together provide unparalleled contributions to our understanding of the origins of species, relatedness between living things, and the history of life on earth.

    Some of the tales of discovery and the people that made them that are chronicled in this book are household names, while others are not. I encourage you to come along and learn about:

    1) the voyage of discovery of Alexander von Humboldt, his observations, discoveries, and contributions to the field of natural history, how his account of that journey affected a young Englishman, Charles Darwin, as well as helped to popularize natural history in the USA

    2) the voyage of Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle and his subsequent development of the theory of evolution by natural selection

    3) how independent work by Alfred Wallace led him to the same conclusions as Darwin, and how that work spurred Darwin to publish the book "On the Origin of Species"

    4) how Darwin's book helped Henry Walter Bates make sense of the diversity of coloration patterns of the butterflies he studied in the Amazon, and that provided a theoretical foundation that helped Bates to describe the evolutionary value of mimicry (what we now call Batesian mimicry)

    5) why a promising young physician, Eugene Duboise, left a promising future in Europe to live and work in the disease infested tropics of Indonesia. He was driven to try to solve Darwin's "mystery of mysteries", the origin of man. Duboise's work was eventually rewarded when he discovered "Java Man", the species we recognize today as Homo erectus, a significant intermediate homonid form between modern humans and the common ancestor humans share with chimps and apes

    6) how a field geologist, Charles Walcott, nearly single handedly mapped the geology of the grand staircase of the escalante in southern Utah and of the Grand Canyon. Walcott later became the head of the US Geologic Survey, and then the head of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. And, if that wasn't enough, at 61 years of age, he discovered the Burgess Shale fossil bed in the Canadian Rockies. That fossil bed helped us gain a new and powerful view of the earilest groups of animals to appear in the fossil record - an evidence of the Cambrian Explosion.

    7) how a young paleontologist, Roy Chapman, a colorful character that sported a ranger hat on his head and a pistol on his hip whenever he was in the field, wriggled his way into the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and then convinced supporters to fund the first research trips to Mongolia where he hoped to search for even older homonid fossils that had ever been discovered, but instead turned the world of paleontologists on its ear when he discovered dinosaur eggs!

    8) how a geologist, Walter Alvarez, and his physicist father, Louis Alvarez, studied the K/T boundary and upset the long-held geologic paradigm of gradualism when they discovered that the Mesozoic era, the age of reptiles, ended because of a global catastrophic event - an asteroid impact!

    9) how John Ostram a young paleontologist discovered that not all dinosaurs went extinct when the asteroid hit - a whole group survived! The birds!

    10) how a young biologist, Niel Shubin, discovered long-predicted but never discovered intermediate forms between fishes and tetrapods.

    11) about the passion of Louis Leakey and of his lifelong search for early man in Africa - against all scientific opinions of the day, and about how that lifelong pursuit paid off!

    12) how a the foremost American chemist of his day, Linus Pauling, developed the concept and application of a molecular clock for showing the degree of relatedness between groups of organisms, particularly between humans and our relations.

    13) and how Allan Wilson applied new discoveries in the field of molecular biology and molecular genetics to investigating the relationship between living and extinct homonids, especially humans and Neanderthals, and how that work supported the "Out of Africa" hypothesis of the radiation of Homo sapiens across the globe, and refuted the older "Multiregional" hypothesis of the origins of modern man.

    Through and through, this book is, believe it or not, a real page turner. It's as much about the scientists as it is about the science. This set of accounts will be of interest to anyone with a scientific bend, and to anyone that enjoys a good true story!

    Lastly, if you are already quite familiar with the stories of Darwin and Wallace, for example, the beginning of the book may drag a little, but, wow, it really picked up after that for me!

    Definitely 5 stars for the scientific crowd, perhaps fewer stars for the casual non-scientifi reader, but I'm going to award it 5 stars!

    Thanks Sean Carroll - this is great stuff!...more info
  • A disappointment
    There are problems all the way through this book. Carroll had a lot more fun writing it then I had reading it. It feels like the captain's plate at a restaurant where the pieces are so small and dull you wonder what you were eating. Like clips from Gone With the Wind. You get the idea. If you know much about Darwin at all there is no reward in reading the chapter about him, and the same can be said about Bates. So the book gets off to a poor start. There seems to be a lot of filler here, the way it's laid out. Too much explanation of what is going to be written about. The chapter on Humboldt is not very satisfying at all. After Carroll's wonderful book Endless Forms Most Beautiful I had high hopes for this but was greatly disappointed. He needs to stick to what he is best at, molecular biology and evolution, not biography. If you want to know about Darwin read the two volume work by Janet Browne. ...more info
  • Evolution's Adventurers
    Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). $26.00, 352 pages.

    This year (2009) is the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of his publication of The Origin of the Species. Books are rolling off the presses to commemorate both. If you are interested in the history of evolutionary thought from Darwin to today, I highly recommend Sean B. Carroll's Remarkable Creatures.

    Carroll is a professor of molecular biology and genetics. He has published two previous books: The Making of the Fittest and Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Thankfully, despite his academic training, he is able to communicate scientific discoveries clearly and without jargon. And he's an excellent storyteller.

    Remarkable Creatures tells the stories of people whose adventures in some of the world's remotest places changed the way we thing about "the mystery of mysteries," that is, the origin of species. Part 1, "The Making of a Theory," focuses on Darwin's voyage on the Beagle and the journeys of Alfred Wallace and Henry Walter Bates into the Amazon. Darwin and Wallace independently discovered the role of natural selection in evolution based on their travels.

    Part 2, "The Loveliest Bones," tells the story of six major paleontological finds: Eugene Dubois and "Java Man," Charles Walcott and the Burgess Shale, Roy Chapman Andrews and dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert, Walter and Luis Alvarez and the K-T extinction, John Ostrom and the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, and Neil Shubin and the Tiktaalik "fishapod." Each of these discoveries confirmed or revised evolutionary biology in significant ways.

    Part 3, "The Natural History of Humans," examines three significant advances in the understanding of human evolution: the discovery of the oldest human remains in Africa; the use of DNA to date and trace the course of human evolution; and the relationship between Neanderthals and homo sapiens.

    In an Afterword, Carroll agrees with George Gaylord Simpson's appraisal of how Darwinism has changed human understanding. Paraphrasing Simpson, he writes: "Darwin's new picture of ancestry meant that humans have no special status other than our definition as a distinct species of animal." As a Christian theist, I disagree with the implication, though not necessarily with the science. And I wonder if Carroll sees how ironic it is for one and only one species of "animal" to ponder questions of its own significance. At the end of the day, the discoveries made by Carroll's adventurers are less interesting than the adventurers themselves. They--we--are the truly remarkable creatures....more info
  • Succeeds from several perspectives
    Remarkable Creatures "tells the stories of some of the most dramatic adventures and important discoveries in two centuries" constrained to some but not all of the people who've made the discoveries that developed and fleshed out the theory of evolution. Given the celebration this year that it's been one hundred and fifty years since Darwin and Wallace formally presented their findings, this is perfect timing.

    As a romantic adventure Carroll's protagonists match and exceed Indiana Jones in terms of both adventure and accomplishments while Carroll's talent as a writer makes this as good a yarn as I've ever read (though Carroll swaps Spielberg's Nazis with Thomas Jefferson's contributions to starting this journey, a pleasant and unexpected twist). As a history book, Carroll deftly provides the framework that provided me with the perspective on how astonishingly fast science has been able to develop the theory of evolution with physical evidence supportive of their initial ideas and helping to refine our understanding and explanation in a manner that's led to breakthroughs in agriculture and medicine. As a concise reader of how scientific methodology yields an aggregate understanding where one discovery helps provide future discoveries and superior understandings; Carroll's experience as a practicing and publishing scientist helps educate his readers on how the scientific process produces an understanding that far surpasses any other approach by way of example rather than dry commentary.

    While I'm cognizant of the number and breadth of transitional fossil discoveries made over the course of the years, I was astonished in the sheer volume of what we've discovered. Some of the fossil hunters yielded tons of fossil evidence in a single expedition. This helped me better appreciate the efforts of people like the Leakeys.

    Carroll also covered an area of evolutionary theory I hadn't heard about though its been around since the time of Darwin and Wallace, which covered Wallace's discovery that some Asian islands currently close to each other had completely different fauna in similar ecological conditions, providing evidence a substantial amount of evolution in each island's fauna occurred when these islands were separated prior to being brought closer together by continental drift.

    I also appreciated Carroll's Afterword, which presented a hypothesis on how one might go about predicting the number of other planets conducive to life using mathematical inferences.

    The book is also an easy enough read for high school students and a great extra credit project for teachers to promote in hopes of encouraging promising students to consider a career in science. It can be read all the way through or by randomly picking a chapter or chapters given that each chapter serves as a mini-history on some of the giants in science and what they discovered....more info
  • Excellent summary of how evolutionary research techniques developed
    Remarkable Creatures is a slight misnomer since the "creatures" at the heart of the book aren't the wide variety of organisms that have been profiled in evolutionary research but the researchers themselves. This focus on scientific biography makes the topic approachable and interesting since the author does a very nice job of offering enough information about each person but not burying us with minute details of their life. Essentially, he tells a great story about how evolutionary theory has developed and who actually did the work of pushing it forward. Carrol succeeds in making the topic fun while offering solid recommendations for further reading.

    My only real critique is for the final sentence at the end of the book. It is a bit nit-picky but I think it is very dangerous to ever discourage interested people from reading the originial source material, even when it is done to save them time and aggravation. I also think that a short mention of punctuated equilibrium might have fit nicely in the book, especially since Stephen J. Gould has passed away and deserves some recognition as a researcher and science writer. Small critiques against a very nice piece of popular science writing. ...more info


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