A HISTORY OF LIFE ON EARTH:
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: The Untold
Story of a Lost World. By Steve Brusatte. 2018.
Macmillan. (ISBN: 9781509830077). 404 pp.,
illus. Paperback, $18.92.
As its title suggests, The Rise and Fall of the
Dinosaurs is the story of the 186-million-year reign
of the dinosaurs on earth, from their origins following the Permian-Triassic extinction to the demise
of the non-avian dinosaurs at the Cretaceous–
Tertiary boundary 66 million years ago. Author
Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University
of Edinburgh, weaves the dinosaurs’ story together
with the story of his own journey from dino-saur-obsessed teen to prominent paleontologist.
Along the way we meet many very colorful char-
acters who have contributed to our understanding
of the dinosaurs’ story, some of them historical
figures and others contemporary colleagues of Bru-
satte who have made significant discoveries.
Brusatte is a gifted storyteller and explainer
of complex ideas, making this book a very enjoy-
able read. He presents paleontology as a vibrant
field of inquiry, with new dinosaur species being
discovered at a rate of about 50 per year. There
are stories of expeditions in the field, but we also
meet paleontologists who work in the laboratory
using high-powered microscopes, CAT scanners,
computer models, statistics, and experimental
methods to investigate the dinosaurs. Along the
way Brusatte provides clear and concise explana-
tions of relevant biological concepts including
natural selection, descent with modification, bio-
logical diversity, speciation, cladistic analysis,
niche partitioning, and island dwarfism.
Among the highlights for me was the chapter
on the evolution of birds, the only dinosaurs to
survive the Cretaceous–Tertiary mass extinction.
Birds evolved from theropods – bipedal dinosaurs
with hollow bones, highly efficient lungs, three
fingers on the hand, and three weight-bearing toes
on the foot. Well-known examples include Veloc-iraptor and Tyrannosaurus rex.
The dinosaur origin of birds was first proposed by T. H. Huxley following the discovery of
Archaeopteryx in 1860 but was largely dismissed.
Huxley’s proposal was resurrected by John Ostrom
in 1969 following his discovery of the theropod
raptor Deinonychus. Ostrom’s proposal also faced
opposition, but subsequent fossil discoveries have
provided incontrovertible evidence. The logic of
Huxley’s and Ostrom’s argument rests upon our
understanding of biological reproduction, Darwin’s theory of common descent, and the empirical
evidence from the fossil record, which demonstrates anatomical similarities between birds and
dinosaurs. The strongest fossil evidence supporting
the dinosaur origin of birds comes from a collection of fossils found in Liaoning Province, China.
Brusatte puts it thus: “The Liaoning fossils sealed
the deal by verifying how many features are shared
uniquely by birds and other theropods: not just
feathers, but also wishbones, three-fingered hands
that fold against the body, and hundreds of other
aspects of the skeleton. There are no other groups
of animals – living or extinct – that share these
things with birds or theropods: this must mean
that birds came from theropods. Any other con-
clusion requires a whole lot of special pleading”
(Brusatte, 2018, p. 282).
Critics of evolution may claim that it is
improbable that the set of complex features necessary for flight – feathers, wings, wishbone, hollow
bones, efficient respiratory system – could arise
all together, at one time, to produce radically new
animal forms, like birds, who are so well adapted
for flight. But the fossil record shows us that each
of these adaptations evolved independently in different species, and each may have served a different
function than the role it plays in flight. For example, feathers, a feature most often taken to be characteristic of birds, were present in non-avian
dinosaurs whose forelimbs could not possibly have
generated enough lift for flight. The evidence suggests that feathers originally evolved for thermoreg-ulation and/or display.
The evolution of birds also illustrates the fact
that evolution is not progressive, or forward-looking. Neither birds, nor human beings, nor any
other species for that matter, is part of some overall
“plan” of evolution. Brusatte writes, “During the
tens of millions of years that dinosaurs were evolving the signature features of birds one by one, there
was no long game, no greater aim. . . . Evolution
works only in the moment, naturally selecting features and behaviors that make an animal successful
in its particular time and place. Flight was something that just kind of happened when the time
was right” (p. 300).
Finally, bird evolution also illustrates a curious
feature of the process of speciation: one cannot tell
that it is occurring at the time that it occurs. A fully
fledged bird did not just pop out of one dinosaur’s
egg one day long ago. Even if scientists had been
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 6, pp. 453–456, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.6.453.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER BOOK REVIEWS
AMANDA L. GLAZE, DEPARTMENT EDITOR