Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 1 review.

Written by Richard Fortey.

tl;dr: An excellent overview of one of evolution's most successful lineages, albeit one that has totally disappeared. There's enough detail here to be considered a genuinely useful reference source, whilst remaining accessible and interesting enough for newcomers to the subject.


Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Trilobite! is an excellent piece of science communication, deftly treading the line between academically relevant, textbook-esque content and approachable, digestible narrative which keeps you engrossed. Fortey has a writing style that can feel a little dated by modern standards, but which is still intriguing to read. I would never have guessed that a book on such a clearly palaeontological subject would contain excerpts from Wordsworth, Hardy, and many other literary and historical sources, nor such distinctly floral language.

At times, that lyrical prose feels a little too much like padding, and does lead to some parts of the book feeling a little aimless as the text circles rather aimlessly around a central concept. Particularly in later chapters, that can often feel like the author has a particularly personal point of interest and is slowly ensuring their critics are cut off, to a degree that can feel a little too introspective. However, that Trilobite! is a highly personal book is evident from page one and the author has clearly devoted a large chunk of their life to understanding these once immensely successful creatures. Fortey is clearly more than simply an expert; he's a super fan, someone with a great passion for this subject, and so these occasional amiable wanderings can be forgiven for the hallmarks of someone truly excited about the micro-details of their chosen topic.

That said, the result is very much a book of two halves. The first four chapters give a very scientific and detail-oriented overview of these enigmatic little critters, the titular trilobites. After a brief (yet information-dense) introduction to their historical context (when they were first discovered, how fossils were initially misinterpreted, their role in folklore and local culture etc.) the book gets stuck into the true meat of the subject in three chapters titled Shells, Legs, and Crystal Eyes respectively. These give a perfect overview of what trilobites were, from anatomical structures to niche positioning to evolutionary development and their life history. It introduces a wide number of technical concepts from evolutionary biology, geology, and palaeontology, but does so in an easy to follow way that should be accessible to any reader.

Of these highly technical chapters, the longest is that on the remarkable eyes. Trilobites are well known for the complexity of visual structures that they evolved over the 300millions years or so in which they scurried over, swam within, and dug through the oceans, but I must admit I hadn't realised quite how bizarre they were. In some ways, the book is almost worth reading for this chapter alone, so it's no surprise that it was clearly the inspiration for the longer form of the title: eyewitness to evolution.

Those first four chapters comprise just over half the book, particularly if you include the many accompanying diagrams and excellent photo plates which primarily serve as reference points for these parts of the text. These supplementary images are excellently chosen and genuinely useful; whilst photos are only present in black and white, given their subjects are predominantly fossils (which tend to form from black or darker minerals) very little information is lost. Combined, that first 50% of the book is as good of a technical and academic overview of trilobites as I've ever come across and I can't help but feel a little annoyed that I didn't have the book when I was doing my degree, which involved quite a few trilobites over the four years of study.

The second half of the book, then, is a little more scattergun and increasingly prone to those aforementioned narrative wanderings. To be honest, I think the latter chapters could probably be condensed and summarised in half as much text without losing any of the detail or truly interesting asides, which makes it feel a little like Fortey had a word count to hit. Compared with the incredibly dense first four chapters (all of which, to my eyes, could have been stretched out a bit) it's a sharp change of pace, but not entirely unwelcome.

These chapters focus on broader topics within evolutionary biology, from the Cambrian explosion and nature of evolution when viewed from geologic time, through to palaeogeography, and on to more human-oriented topics such as scientific naming conventions. They're still packed full of accessible introductions to technical terminology and provide an excellent overview of topics such as cladistics, palaeomagnetism, punctuated equilibrium, and the arguments around the Burgess Shale lifeforms. On top of which, Fortey successfully manages to bring each topic back round to trilobites, keeping them centre stage, which is both a novel and fascinatingly useful viewpoint. There are also some genuinely moving asides about the history of evolutionary debate and discovery, including the unfortunate loss of Rudolf Kauffman, a clearly brilliant scientist whose work was both cut short and almost entirely ignored as a result of the rise of Naziism in WW2 Germany.

I would say that the final few chapters feel a little lacklustre, which is a shame when compared with the rest of the book. Chapter nine, Time, seems to take a step back to the more technical concept of ontogeny. Not only does it feel a little out of place in the chapter order, but it covers a lot of the same ground as earlier sections, before closing with a genuinely weird callback to the Hardy story that was used to introduce trilobites in chapter one. It feels like an attempt at rounding out the book, but this is only the penultimate chapter. Instead, Trilobite finishes on a note about how science and creativity are intertwined.

Whilst I don't disagree with anything Fortey has to say in that final chapter, it feels more like a grab-bag of remaining personal pet peeves about how the world views scientists and science as a whole. Lengthy descriptions of portrayal in popular culture and brief asides about the Nobel prize combine to make a fairly weak final note which doesn't even link back to the subject matter all that well. To my taste, chapter nine should have been sent forward in the book to sit with the other more technical chapters, and the final chapter condensed (and largely removed) into a few final paragraphs to pull things together.

Lack of an ending aside, however, Trilobite remains an excellent book, well written and informative enough to appeal to academic and amateur alike. I'm sure some of the contained information is now a little out of date, but from what I can tell the majority should still stand up. If you're at all interested in palaeontology, evolutionary biology, or the natural world in general, I would strongly recommend giving it a read.

Read my notes here.

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