"The Rise of Animals" is a wonderful book. Much of the history of life on Earth was dominated by single-cell organisms and, until relatively recently, little was known of the origins of multi-cellular life before the "Cambrian Explosion" of life. This book describes those origins in what is now called the ediacaran fauna. More particularly, the most important fossil sites are very well described by leading palaeontologists
The authors show great respect for scientific rigor and academic balance - and dedication to their subject. They are also sufficiently humble to admit that much of what we know about the remote past is based on fragmentary evidence subject to different interpretations, and that new discoveries will almost certainly lead to revisions of matters currently considered to be settled.
You won't find self-serving selection of facts and argument to serve partisan stances. Nor will you find chest-beating self-promotion.
These are not light matters in an age where science is often trivialised and even distorted to serve partisan interests. One has only to follow the "intelligent design" controversy to see how pernicious such misrepresentation can be.
Where there are competing explanations for certain events, the central arguments on both sides are fairly given. Where uncertainty exists it is acknowledged. Significant information is fully attributed and referenced.
Such an approach fully informs the reader and provides valuable starting points for students to investigate particular matters more deeply.
The reader is also impressed by the dedication of early ediacaran investigators, who worked under difficult field conditions and then may have had to contend with professional opposition to their novel claims when back in the office! The progress of science owes much to such people, who, having the strength of their convictions, live to see their ideas embraced by their peers.
But this book is also about people other than palaeontologists. Often important sites lie on private property, or in remote areas, that require the cooperation of local people to enable palaeontologists to carry out field work. There is a moving story of one such couple, Tatiana and Timofei, who endured great hardships in the Soviet era, but who also provided accommodation and help to scientists in the field. Such people often go unrecognised in the scientific literature and it is greatly to the credit of the writers of this book that their contributions are recorded in text and photos.
There are also vivid descriptions of the difficulties (and pleasures) of doing fieldwork in remote locations such as the Arctic coast of Siberia.
The book is crammed with wonderful photos, illustrations and diagrams. The latter in particular are models of clarity. They manage to make very clear the essential features of complex systems. Colour-coded text boxes are frequently used for definitions and to describe important topics (eg radiometric dating) without disturbing the flow of the narrative.
Many of the fossil photos are breathtakingly beautiful. They are a tribute to the fossil discoverers, to those who revealed them from the host rock, and to those who prepared the illustrations for this book.
This book requires a reasonable level of scientific literacy to enjoy fully. The authors do not shy away from correct scientific terminology, but they make an effort to define many terms and to explain important topics in the text boxes.
Readers familiar with chemistry, biology and the earth sciences at senior high school or undergraduate level will have few problems.
Anyone studying palaeontology or related earth sciences would be motivated by the book, and would yearn to visit the wonderful locations of important fossils.
Science teachers looking to expand their horizons will also get much from the book, including insights into how science should be objectively studied and reported. Perhaps this is the most important duty of science teachers: to impart the moral and philosophical aspects of science, not only facts and techniques.
There is a text box on page 221 that describes the problems of sample contamination and the proper use of controls. Such experimental techniques should be taught to all students early in their careers, because the acquisition of trustworthy data is the bedrock upon which all science is built.
The book is not really suitable for general readers with no scientific knowledge at all - although such readers will certainly enjoy the illustrations and may be prompted to learn more about the origins of animals. The book is not amenable to skimming, as one reads a novel. Most non-specialist readers will have to engage with the text to take in the information.
There is no Glossary, which is a pity. Specialist terms unfamiliar to the general reader like "rangeomorphs" and "taphonomy" are used a number of times before they are defined in passing in the text. It would also have been helpful to include a classification diagram showing the major divisions of life (eg domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species) and some of the key taxa mentioned in the text. Only specialists will know where, for example, "chordate" or "arthropods" fit on the tree of life when these terms arise in the text.
Another small criticism is the rather jarring and self-serving Foreword written by Arthur C Clarke, whose promotion of his own science fiction books seems quite out of place after one has read the book.
There is an extensive bibliography, as you would expect in a book of this quality. There is also an "atlas" describing all the key fossils. Internet references are also given in some places.
The bottom line: I really enjoyed this book. It is well worth the money for general readers like myself, not only for its scientific content and descriptions of evocative places, but also for its insight into the professional activity of honourable people engaged in scientific work that they love and respect - in a field that unfortunately does not always generate the public acclaim or recognition enjoyed by high-profile fields such as space research and medicine.
Books like this deserve a wider readership so that proper recognition may accrue to scientists who are unravelling the mysteries of life on our planet - surely one of the noblest scientific endeavours of all.