Paleontology references: Read this, not that

The December 2009 issue of the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach has just been released, and among the new offerings is a paper on "Print Reference Sources about Evolution" by Adam Goldstein. It seems to be a spinoff of Goldstein's paper on evolution blogs published in the same journal earlier this year, and it stresses the importance of print references during a time when online resources are becoming more widely available. While I agree that print references are still very important for anyone who wants to educate themselves about evolution, though, I don't think that Goldstein made the best choices for his recommendations. This is most starkly apparent in the list of books about "Particular Animals" near the end of the paper.


Goldstein recommends that readers interested in dinosaurs should check out Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs and The Evolution and Extinction of the Dinosaurs. I have not read the former title so I can hardly quibble with the choice, but it should be noted that the latter book has been updated, revised, and re-released as Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History. It is the finest textbook on dinosaurs I have seen.

Additionally, anyone serious about studying dinosaurs needs a copy of the second edition of The Dinosauria, though readers looking for something a little less technical might want to start with Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries is likewise an excellent resource that focuses on the history of dinosaur science, and aspiring tyrannosaur specialists will also need the comprehensive Tyrannosaurus rex, the Tyrant King.


Horses present a bit of a problem. Despite being used over and over again as prime examples of evolution there has been a dearth of comprehensive references about their evolution during the past two decades. There is G.G. Simpson's classic (but dated) book, Horses, and Goldstein cites Bruce MacFadden's monograph Fossil Horses, but there is not very much else out there. Fortunately for horse fans, though, an English translation of Jen Franzen's The Rise of Horses is going to be published this coming January, and it definitely should have been on the list.


For avians Goldstein only endorses one reference, Alan Feduccia's The Origin and Evolution of Birds. I think this was a mistake, or that the recommendation should have included some caveats. Despite the overwhelming evidence that birds are the descendants of small, feathered theropod dinosaurs Feduccia has repeatedly denied this connection, and his discredited arguments form a major part of the book. The Origin and Evolution of Birds is a good reference for finding information about birds over the last 65 million years, but the sections on the origin of birds are seriously flawed. A much better choice is Louis Chiappe's lavishly-illustrated Glorified Dinosaurs.


Almost equally puzzling is Goldstein's choice for a reference on fossil primates. His selection is the out-of-print 1979 volume The Evolutionary History of the Primates, and while certainly useful it should have been paired with some more recent offerings. Those particularly interested in early primates and the origin of anthropoids, for example, should seek out Primate Origins and Anthropoid Origins. A more general overview is presented by The Primate Fossil Record, and readers just getting their feet wet might want to start with the popular titles The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey and The Ape in the Tree.

I did not issue this critique to say that the works Goldstein picked are of no value. The books he listed are certainly important, and sooner or later a researcher should become acquainted with the classics in their chosen area of study. Still, I think it would be best for someone interested in evolutionary science to start with solid, current reviews rather than starting with books that are decades out of date or (as in the case of Feduccia's book) are centered on hypotheses that have been refuted. I have tried to round out one section of the list here, but I have no doubt that I have missed some titles. What titled would you add to the list?

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Szalay and Delson is available for free here it is down the page a bit. Primate Origins and Anthropoid Origins and The Primate Fossil Record are all quite pricey. In their stead I would recommend Fleagle's book and Conroy's...

By afarensis, FCD (not verified) on 03 Dec 2009 #permalink

Thanks for the link, afarensis. I agree that the prices of the technical volumes can be prohibitive for personal libraries, but I included some more pricey tomes because the list Goldstein presented was a list of books that might be available through libraries/interlibrary loans.

Hmmm. I wasn't aware that horses had evolved that much in the past two decades....

Invertebrates? The majority of paleontology is actually done with invertebrate animal groups, yet nobody seems to care.


James; So... name some books! I was working off the list presented in the paper itself. That is why I asked for more suggestions at the end of the post.

Matt; Horses might not have changed that much, but our understanding of them has changed. And even if we learned nothing new there is no harm in issuing a new review now and then to keep information circulating among interested readers.

I should point out that the link to Chiappe's Glorified Dinosaurs actually points to Dingus and Rowe's The Mistaken Extinction, which is still a great book, but a bit out-of-date.