Written in Stone - Wrapping up is hard to do


Now that the details about Australopithecus sediba have been published, I am faced with an important question - how am I going to fit the new hominin into Written in Stone?

When I started composing Written in Stone I was determined to make it as up-to-date as possible. This was not only out of a concern for accuracy, but also stemmed from a desire to present the public with some discoveries that they may not have heard about before. Given that new paleontological papers are being published every week, however, I have often been faced with the question of how to incorporate interesting new research into a book that I thought was nearly finished.

My response has not always been the same in every case. When Puijila, a relative of early seals relevant to their origins, was described I wondered if it might be a good idea to include it in the chapter on whale evolution as an alternative manner by which mammals became adapted to life in the sea. The problem was that I had already used ichthyosaurs to contrast whales with, and I ultimately decided that they were better for comparison than Puijila. I ended up mentioning Puijila in a footnote, as I did the supposed early tetrapod tracks announced a few months ago.

There have been a few discoveries which have forced me to significantly alter particular chapters, however. As I was writing the human evolution chapter, for example, I had heard that Ardipithecus ramidus was going to be published soon, and so I wrote the relevant portion of the chapter such that I could alter the section on Ardipithecus if the papers came out before I sent the book off to be published. Fortunately, the papers were released earlier than I had expected, and I was able to include a more in-depth discussion of the fossils than in the previous draft. Then there was the unexpected announcement that Tyrannosaurus rex suffered from infestations of microorganisms very similar to those which plague modern birds. I felt that this discovery added an interesting twist to the evidence I had summarized on the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, so I found a way to work it into the feathered dinosaurs chapter.

In each case I had to look at the story I had already laid out and ask myself 1) whether the new discoveries were significant enough to retain the attention of readers, 2) if the conclusions drawn from the findings were well-supported, and 3) how the new findings might fit into the story I had already laid out. If I felt a story was significant, but I doubted the conclusions or it just did not fit with the narrative I had laid out, I typically mentioned it in a footnote. Interesting finds which highlighted the point I was attempting to make, on the other hand, I worked into the text. Even using these guidelines, I could not include everything I wanted to, but Written in Stone will most certainly contain some information that has not yet been covered by any other popular science book.

So, what about Australopithecus sediba? I think it definitely merits mention in a footnote, though it also adds to the theme of hominin diversification I highlight in the latter part of the hominin chapter. Given that it was just formally published a day ago there are probably more questions than answers about its relationships to other hominins, but I think it merits at least a brief note.

Whatever I end up doing with A. sediba, it will be one of the last scientific updates to Written in Stone. This weekend I will be arranging illustrations and combing through the text one more time before sending the manuscript to be copy-edited. I will still be able to make some changes to the book during this next phase of production, but this weekend is my last chance to make any large-scale changes to the story I want to tell. This means that, between now and the time the book is released, I won't be able to keep going back to the manuscript to make updates on new discoveries, but that may be for the best. If I had the ability to keep fiddling with the book it might never be finished. At some point I am just going to have to jump in with what I have, and now is as good a time as any.

More like this

At some point I am just going to have to jump in with what I have, and now is as good a time as any.

But you still have to make sure everything you want in there is in there, because of the title. "Written in Stone - 2nd, revised edition" sounds slightly contradictory.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 09 Apr 2010 #permalink

True - although the title is a little ironic in the context of the history of science in the book since I document how our understanding of the past has changed. If there ever is a revised edition, though, I would probably be wise to consider a new title!

On a more serious note, everything that I want in the book is in the book. The bits about new discoveries are little garnishes that illustrate the points I want to make. The book is not meant to be a catalog of research; I have tried to use interesting discoveries to draw out larger concepts about evolution and the history of life on earth. Sooner or later the book will be outdated, that much is certain, but I am hoping that the arguments will remain valid even if new discoveries change some of the specifics.

I am looking forward to seeing what you have to say about ichthyosaur evolution; with a little bit of luck that story should be getting fleshed out a bit more over the next few years...

Can't wait to read the book!

I sense some inside basebase, Neil.

Brian, I can very much identify with your dilemma. It is one of the things that has stopped me from writing a sort of historical science book at all. By the time the book goes to print, it may well be outdated or inaccurate.

Could you throw it in as a footnote or endnote? I kind of enjoyed some of those in Dawkins' Greatest Show on Earth - it felt like even as the reader reads, science keeps going on.

Either way, can't wait for your book.

Of course this is always a challenge - and of course there is no solution, so it's actually not a problem. Surely what's exciting about science is not just what we know but even more what we don't know and what we discover minute by minute - that's what keeps us going. Supposing your book was called "Written on paper" - would you expect to go to the library next month and find nothing new? The subtitle of my book was "the never-ending story" - it was controversial but one of the reasons I liked it was that it implied a continuing journey into the unknown. "Written in Stone - 2nd, revised edition" actually sounds quite exciting to me.