Written in Stone


320 pages

Trade Paper

List Price US $19.99
ISBN: 9781934137291


ISBN: 9781934137369

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“In this thoroughly entertaining science history, Switek combines a deep knowledge of the fossil record with a Holmesian compulsion to investigate the myriad ways evolutionary discoveries have been made…It’s poetry, serendipity, and smart entertainment because Switek has found the sweet spot between academic treatise and pop culture, a literary locale that is a godsend to armchair explorers everywhere.”


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“[Switek’s] pithy accounts explain how the fossils … came to be discovered and interpreted . . . [an] excellent book.”

Wall Street Journal

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“Switek seamlessly intertwines two types of evolution: one of life on earth and the other of paleontology itself.”

Discover Magazine

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“In delightful prose, [Switek] . . . superbly shows that ‘[i]f we can let go of our conceit,’ we will see the preciousness of life in all its forms.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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“Highly instructive . . . a warm, intelligent yeoman’s guide to the progress of life.”

Kirkus Reviews

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“In Written in Stone, Brian Switek simultaneously depicts our place in Nature while capturing the flavor of discovery and understanding our remote past in the fossil record. Elegantly and engagingly crafted, Switek’s narrative interweaves stories and characters not often encountered in books on paleontology—at once a unique, informative and entertaining read.”

Niles Eldredge, author of Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life

“Brian Switek’s Written in Stone is a wonderful journey through the fossil record, and the people and events that have shaped our understanding of fossils and their meaning. He weaves in entertaining anecdotes about the scientists and their discoveries (impeccably researched and up-to-date in historical detail) with our current view of these creatures, utilizing all the latest discoveries from new fossils to molecular biology. After reading this book, you will have a totally new context in which to interpret the evolutionary history of amphibians, mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and especially humans.”

Donald R. Prothero, author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters

“It is hard not to be awed reading Brian Switek’s magisterial Written in Stone.  Part historical account, part scientific detective story, the book is a reflection on how we have come to know and understand ancient events in the planet’s history.  Switek’s elegant prose and thoughtful scholarship will change the way you see life on our planet. This book marks the debut of an important new voice.”

Neil Shubin, Professor and author of Your Inner Fish

“Brian Switek proves himself a compelling historian of science with Written In Stone. His accounts of dinosaurs, birds, whales, and our own primate ancestors are not just fascinating for their rich historical detail, but also for their up-to-date reporting on paleontology’s latest discoveries about how life evolved.”

Carl Zimmer, author of At the Water’s Edge and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution

“If you want to read one book to get up to speed on evolution, read Written in Stone.  Switek’s clear and compelling book is full of fascinating stories about how scientists have read the fossil record to trace the evolution of life on Earth. In it, you will read how dinosaurs gave rise to birds, how small deer-like land animals evolved into whales, and how many types of horses, elephants and early humans once roamed the Earth. In short, you will see how scientists through the ages have figured out man’s place in nature.”

Ann Gibbons, author of The First Human

When Charles Darwin unveiled his revolutionary idea that life had evolved by means of natural selection it made sense of the whole of biology, yet it was dogged by a major problem: the transitional fossils that would confirm Darwin’s predictions were seemingly nowhere to be found. The absence of these “missing links” became one of the most hotly debated issues in evolutionary science.

Only now—through advances in paleontology, molecular biology, and genetics—can the comprehensive story be told. Written in Stone is the first popular account of the remarkable discovery of these fossils (from walking whales to feathered dinosaurs and hominins of all types), the debates they engender, and how today’s discoveries have changed our perspective of the tree of life. By combining the most up-to-date scientific research with the history of science, Written in Stone explores our changing ideas about our place in nature and celebrates the remarkable variety of life on Earth.

Excerpt from Written in Stone

‘[L]et us not be too sure that in putting together the bones of extinct species… we are not out of collected fossil remains creating to ourselves a monster’
—Samuel Best, After Thoughts on Reading Dr. Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise (1837)

In the summer of 1841, the German-born fossil collector Albert Koch unveiled a monster. Over thirty feet in length and fifteen feet high at the shoulder, the tusked wonder dwarfed visitors to Koch’s eclectic St Louis Museum. He called it Missourium theristrocaulodon, the Leviathan from Missouri.

Koch had exhumed the remains of his star attraction not far from the lush banks of the Pomme de Terre River in Benton County, Missouri, the previous year. Among scraps of fossilized swamp moss and cypress trees were the bones of several individuals, and Koch cobbled together their bones to construct a beast that seemed larger than life. Patrons flocked to the museum to marvel at its enormous tusks and tree-sized limbs.

Koch’s Missourium proved popular enough that he decided to expand his audience. The beast was to go on an east-coast tour, and one of the first stops was the Masonic Hall in the bustling port city of Philadelphia. Crowds came to gape at what Koch sold as the ruler of the Antediluvian world, but mixed among the curious members of the public were representatives of the city’s prestigious community of naturalists.

One of the first naturalists to examine Koch’s work was the anatomist Paul Goddard, and he immediately knew something was wrong. Koch’s Missourium was not a new creature but was already familiar to naturalists as a mastodon, an extinct elephant given the name Mammut americanum. Even worse, Koch had erred in his reconstruction by adding extra ribs and vertebrae to inflate the stature of the already gigantic proboscidean.

Koch’s lack of academic training and his sensational promotion of his specimen did little to help him. Had he deliberately manufactured an imaginary creature or was he just ignorant of palaeontology? Accusations and counter-accusations circulated through Philadelphia’s scientific community, but Richard Harlan, another local anatomist and polymath, took the middle ground. After studying the skeleton himself, Harlan could only conclude that Koch had simply made a few honest mistakes. Surely, now the errors had been exposed, the extraneous bones would be removed.

If Koch agreed with Harlan’s assessment, he did not let on. When the skeleton was erected in London’s Egyptian Hall later the same year, it appeared with every extra bone in place. Now, however, it had some competition. The scaly representatives of the recently described (and soon to be named) Dinosauria threatened to overshadow the Missourium. So Koch played up the might and size of his ancient pachyderm. A broadside poster proclaimed:

This unparalleled Gigantic remains, when its huge frame was clad with its peculiar fibrous integuments, and when moved by its appropriate muscles, was Monarch over all the Animal Creation; the Mammoth, and even the mighty Iguanodon may easily have crept between his legs.

Such fanfare did not deceive British naturalists. Even though the Missourium was greeted with enthusiasm by some members of the London scientific elite, in 1842 the anatomist Richard Owen pointed out the spare ribs and vertebrae that his American colleagues had previously noticed. Koch passionately defended his reconstruction before the Geological Society, but the British scholars were not convinced.

In the wake of this controversy, Koch took the skeleton on tour elsewhere in Europe, yet the London scientists had not entirely soured on Missourium. Despite Koch’s overblown claims, it was still an impressive and valuable mastodon skeleton. When Koch stopped back in London in November 1843 at the end of the tour, the British Museum purchased it for £1,300. This was enough to enroll the Koch children in a school in Dresden, Germany, while the palaeontologist and his wife travelled the European continent. All of Koch’s hard work had paid off.

By 1844, however, Koch was itching to head back into the field to rebuild his collection. A fossil-hunting trip through the United States would be just the thing, and as soon as Koch arrived in New England he started prospecting the local outcrops for choice specimens. Shells, shark teeth and a few bones rewarded Koch’s efforts, but what he was really after was another monster. The Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, a close friend of Koch’s, would be instrumental in providing him with one.

When Koch stopped in New Haven, Connecticut, to visit Silliman on 17 August, he had his entire array of fossil treasures in tow. Silliman was impressed with what his friend had already accumulated, but he knew of another place where there were even more impressive bones to be found. In parts of southern Alabama, local residents had found the abundant remains of an enormous sea-serpent, and Silliman knew a woman who could tell Koch where to chisel his own sea monster from the rock. They went off to meet her at once. If Koch could obtain these remains then he would surely have a new attraction unrivalled by any other.

With directions to the monster graveyard in hand Koch soon continued on his way through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, picking up fossils as he went. He finally reached Alabama on 20 January 1845, but the fossils he sought proved elusive. It would be another month before he would first catch sight of them, and they would not be in the place he expected. On 14 February, Koch was on his way to meet an acquaintance in Macon County when he spotted an enormous, charred vertebra lying in a fireplace. It could only have come from the sea serpent.

When he asked about the scorched bone, Koch was told that it had been used for nearly three years as a fireplace support, and this was only one of the ways in which the plentiful fossils were regularly destroyed. During his travels, Koch saw the gigantic vertebrae used to prop up a fence, as a cornerstone in a fireplace, as a slave’s pillow, and had even heard of a man who thought he could extract lime from the fossils by burning them. (All he got for his trouble were burnt bones that crumbled to pieces.) Indeed, the bones were so numerous that in some fields they were destroyed because they interfered with cultivation of the land, and the widespread waste of the petrified treasures troubled Koch. As he wrote in his journal it was a shame that so many fine specimens were ‘snatched from science by ignorance’.