Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review: The Link by Colin Tudge

When I was in college, I took a class called The History of Life. It was an interdepartmental biology and geology class and it neatly concluded my science/math requirement to graduate, a very good thing for an English major. The fact that it was truly fascinating was icing on the cake. So I was terribly curious about Colin Tudge's The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, written to introduce and give an understandable background to the lay reader about a one of a kind fossil find that rocked the scinetific world and which could prove to be of humankind's many times great-grandmother.
The fossil in question is named Ida and she is a 47 million year old prosimian from the Eocene era who died and was astonishingly prefectly preserved in the Messel Pit in Germany. Recovered from the pit by a private collector in 1982, Ida was sold 25 years later to the University of Oslo where she has been the subject of intense scientific study. The book opens with a detailed description of how Ida could have died and ended up in the pit 47 million years ago. It discusses the intense excitement of the few scientists priviledged to see her fossil as the University acquired her and prepared to present her to the world. Chapters discuss the Eocene itself, its climate, its flora and fauna as we know it from the fossil record, and the theories of evolution that lead us to surmise that Ida is potentially one of the vaunted missing links in our own lineage.
The different chapters establishing the scientific background to Ida are lengthy and detailed while the portion of the book actually focused on the fossil of this squirrel-sized primitive primate who was probably a tree dwelling leaper and climber is less fully explored.  Obviously science is just beginning to study this extraordinarily intact fossil and so there is still much to be deduced from her bones, the "shadow" of her fur, the imprint of the contents of her stomach, and so on but this uneven weighting in the narrative is disappointing, making it seem as if the book was rushed out before there was enough specific information on Ida herself. 
For me, having taken that long ago class, I was already familiar with the climate and conditions of the Eocene, the relative positions and shapes of the continents at the time, the strengths and weaknesses of the drastically incomplete fossil record, the speculations and disagreements surrounding the fossils we do have, and the evolutionary importance of other "missing link" fossils like the Archaeopteryx so the in-depth explanations of all of the above, once they had quickly refreshed my memory were overkill and I found myself wishing we could get back to what was uncovered about Ida herself and how she fit into the grand scheme of things.  As exciting a discovery as Ida was and is, I was left a little disappointed with the book.  I will, however, do a little poking around and see what else might have come to light about this fantastic fossil in the four or so years since this book was published so it did ultimately capture my interest.  And I suspect that those with a strong layman's interest in science will find this an interesting look at the workings not only of the distant prehistoric past but also the competition and cooperation in the fossil collecting and explaining world.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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