Cover image for In search of deep time : beyond the fossil record to a new history of life
In search of deep time : beyond the fossil record to a new history of life
Gee, Henry, 1962-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
iii, 267 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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QE721.2.S7 G44 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A revolutionary approach to biology and evolution uses DNA research and the study of cladistics to compare fossilized remains and model the most likely common ancestor of many dinosaur species.

Author Notes

Henry Gee, PH.D. received his doctorate in zoology from Cambridge University and has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is Chief Science Writer for Nature and has written for The London Review of Books, The Times, Le Monde, and Die Zeit. He lives in London.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Paleontology is popularly thought to be the science of establishing the evolutionary descent of one extinct species to another. The flaw in this conception of past life is, as Gee forcefully emphasizes, the fragmentary nature of the fossil record and the tremendous spans of time separating individual fossils. This situation, he argues, makes assertions of adaptive descent scientifically untestable. But one school of paleontologists developed a method to attack the problem of untestability, called cladistics. Backed by Gee's discussion of particular fossils, cladistics relates species according to their patterns, rather than according to a process of evolutionary descent that Gee repeatedly criticizes as unknowable. Gee's strictures impel him toward what provable information cladistics can strain from the particular fossils he describes, among them fishes (his specialty), conodonts (a mysterious group that has left only teeth), Archaeopteryx (whose popular fame as a precursor of birds Gee contests), and hominids. Gee energetically campaigns for the use of the fundamental tool of science, hypothetical thinking, within his own field. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Deep Time, according to John McPhee, who coined the term, refers to the millions of years in the geologic record, as opposed to our everyday sense of time in which centuries and millennia seem endless. In this eloquent treatise, Gee, a senior science writer for Nature, asserts that the dramatically different scales on which deep and ordinary time are measured have significant implications for evolutionary biology and paleontology. He takes the provocative and perhaps extreme view that scientists will never be able to successfully answer evolutionary questions about the origins of species, or about the pressures leading to various adaptations, because events that occurred in deep time are not accessible to experimentation. Indeed, he argues, such questions should be considered outside the realm of science. In the place of traditional biology, Gee offers the field of cladistics, "a way of looking at the world in terms of the pattern that evolution creates, rather than the process that creates the pattern." By using statistical techniques to group anatomically similar organisms, both extant and extinct, cladists assert that they are able to demonstrate testable evolutionary relationships. While Gee does a superb job of explaining the basics of cladistics and of revealing its use in the controversies swirling around the origins of birds and of humans, more cautious thinkers may find that he exaggerates both its power as a tool and its acceptance by the scientific community. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Gee (senior editor, Nature) explores the loss of information about ancestry and evolution that occurs because of the vastness of geologic time. Understanding of the history of life is based on interpretations of fossils, typically fragments of the original organism. So much information about the organism and its environment is lost over geologic time that the ability to make testable hypotheses about the fossil and its kin are severely limited. Gee induces us to reevaluate many popular views of science--emphasizing that science must be testable. The criterion of testability relegates narratives that trace ancestries over geologic time or espouse causes for ancient evolutionary events to the realm of educated speculation. Such narratives are not really science, because they cannot be formulated into testable hypotheses. The vastness of geologic time makes it impossible to devise a testable hypothesis linking cause and effect. Gee demonstrates how cladistic analysis provides such a means to interpret life's history from the fossil record. Excellent paleontologic examples are used throughout to clearly illustrate key points. Though not a textbook, this work would be valuable reading for students interested in interpreting the Earth's history or the philosophy of science. Readers will find the writing style comfortable. General readers; upper-division undergraduates and up. T. J. Kroeger; Bemidji State University

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
1 Nothing Beside Remainsp. 11
2 Hunting Unicornsp. 46
3 There Are More Thingsp. 86
4 Darwin and His Precursorsp. 112
5 The Gang of Fourp. 138
6 The Being and Becoming of Birdsp. 171
7 Are We Not Men?p. 201
Notesp. 231
Acknowledgementsp. 253
Indexp. 255