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Re: Feduccia

I reviewed the three other books in New Scientist last year. I don't have
the publication date, but here's a copy of my original review (i.e., before
it was edited). I had earlier looked at Feduccia's book and decided it
should be reviewed by an expert who could comment more knowledgeably about
his arguments. -- Jeff Hecht


Avian evolution is hot, thrust into the headlines by spectacular Chinese
discoveries of fossil birds and a possible "feathered dinosaur" ["The
People's Fossils," New Scientist, 9 August 1997]. With public interest
high, it seems a good time to publish books on the topic. The problem is
that the flood of discoveries that raises public interest also can drown
books trapped in the backwaters of publishing, an industry where a glacial
pace sometimes seems rapid.

Book authors cope with long lead times by taking a different approach than
daily newspapers or weekly magazines. Instead of reporting news, they
collect, analyze, and interpret information. Without the constraints of
daily deadlines and column lengths, authors can tell stories carefully and
comprehensively, explain points thoroughly, and provide fresh, thoughtful
perspective. Three recent books on bird evolution do just that, offering
different approaches that will appeal to different readers.

Pat Shipman's Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight
focuses narrowly on the seven specimens of Archaeopteryx as the fossils
crucial to understanding how birds got off the ground. Carefully crafted,
it's a writer's book that brings alive not just the fossils but the
scientists who study them. Read it and you can hear the protagonists debate
their conflicting views in the common search for knowledge. Shipman
illuminates the scientists as well as the fossils, so you get to know
people like John Ostrom and Larry Martin who have helped shape the field.

The focus on Archaeopteryx is both a strength and a limitation of Shipman's
approach. Archaeopteryx is among the world's most important fossils, both
for its extraordinary preservation and its record of a crucial evolutionary
transition. However, it cannot tell the whole story of avian evolution.
Shipman nicely covers the controversy over "Archie's" ancestry, but her
main focus is on the process of how paleontologists breathe life into the
fossils of long-dead animals. I was hoping for more on one of my pet
interests, the proliferation of birds over the past 150 million years.

Sankar Chatterjee's The Rise of Birds spans a much broader scope, from 75
million years before Archaeopteryx to the recovery from the mass extinction
that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. His is a scientist's
book, readable, but still full of anatomical detail. Like many a
scientist's book, it puts a spotlight on his own work, a controversial
fossil called Protoavis which Chatterjee interprets as a bird that flew in
Texas some 70 million years before Archaeopteryx. Shipman covers Protoavis
in just a few paragraphs, noting that most paleontologists withhold
judgement because the fossils are poor in quality. Yet Chatterjee, with the
enthusiasm for his own discoveries typical of many paleontologists,
describes Protoavis in great detail before turning to the rest of the avian
family tree. He gives other birds less attention, but nonetheless gives a
big picture of bird evolution.

Lowell Dingus and Timothy Rowe taken an even broader scope in The Mistaken
Extinction: Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Birds. In a sense, they
combine two shorter books, one on the mass extinction that wiped out what
they call "non-avian" dinosaurs, and a second on the evolution of birds.
They write with the clear, crisp prose of good teachers, enlivened with
stories that spice up dry facts. Their explanations are concise and
generally well-illustrated. They nicely explain the cladistic method of
evolutionary analysis, show avian ancestry, and trace them to modern
lineages. They don't give many details, but that's good news for non
anatomists who puzzle at terms like dorsal and ventral.

All in all, Dingus and Rowe offer the best concise overview of bird
evolution, although some details are missing or outdated. If you want more
anatomical details, or want to look at the enigmatic Protoavis for
yourself, you should turn to Chatterjee. If you're fascinated by
Archaeopteryx, the origins of flight,or the process of paleontology, read
Shipman's book. You're sure to emerge from any of them realizing how many
questions remain unanswered, and how important new discoveries are to
solving the many puzzles remaining in avian evolution.

Jeff Hecht     Boston Correspondent    New Scientist magazine
525 Auburn St.,          Auburndale, MA 02466             USA
tel 617-965-3834 fax 617-332-4760 e-mail jhecht@world.std.com
Press releases to: jeff.hecht@sff.net
URL: http://www.sff.net/people/Jeff.Hecht/
see New Scientist on the Web: http://www.newscientist.com/