Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: The Beasts of Eden

Well, this will be my first review of a book I loathe. I remember the crushing disappointment I had when I read it 5 years ago. Re-reading it brings out the author’s ridiculous opinionated assertions and poor structuring. Its identity is misleading, and while it’s not worthless or false in its actual facts, it’s a example of terrible book design.  I’m going to talk about David Rains Wallace’s Beasts of Eden.

The publisher promises a look at prehistoric mammals. Okay, I’m a big fan of them; I love to see them at museums, read about them and write about them. It doesn’t take long for my dislike of the author to flare up. He begins his story by making a laudation of Rudolph Zallinger’s epic mural The Age of Reptiles. While it is a piece of great art and classical in composition, depth, and breath, he goes overboard. He compares it to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and compares the art of Zdenek Burian and Charles R Knight as inferior to Zallinger.

First problem; no examples of the art. He will frequently refer to the Age of Mammals, and it will be a central piece of the narrative, but only small, low-quality grayscale images are in the book. It took me a trip to New Haven for me to actually understand and appreciate what he’s actually talking about. I regret my film reviews don’t have enough screenshots, and I haven’t illustrated my last Prehistoric Warfare post at the time I’m writing this article, but I’m not published!  This is equivalent of making a review of a very visual film like Citizen Kane or the Wizard of Oz without pictures.  He argues than a picture is worth a thousand words. Well then, mister, you’d better exchange your chapters for more pictures!

Second problem, a more subjective issue, is his assertion of Zallinger’s superiority. While I will not debate the majesty and atmosphere of the Age of Reptiles and Age of Mammals, I have to argue against them in defense of Charles Knight. Zallinger makes a gallery, a menagerie of prehistoric animals. They’re loosely clumped together, usually only one of each species, and in very neutral poses. Knight shows lifelike action, large family groups, and gives each scene its own mural. It’s also more accurate to paleontology. You hardly ever see a find of successive geological formations neatly deposited on each other with a representative species from each. Instead, you get scenes. Knight’s murals are like museum dioramas, or like modern zoo exhibits-the animals interact with each other, they show motion and social activity. Knight’s paintings are like Caravaggio’s episodes of history and Biblical narrative, rather than the stolid, static images of a church or Zallinger’s mural.  In the near future, I will write a series of articles on Knight’s murals of the Field museum in contrast to Wallace, but for now, there are narrative problems to deconstruct.

You see, the main purpose of the book is not to talk about the animals themselves. It’s all about the history of paleontology. The history of paleontology is interesting in its own right, but not at all what the publishers seemed to promise.  The fossils are merely toys and props for the characters. Again, the figures of paleontology are fascinating, and I hope to talk more about them in future posts, but I’m sure I’m not the only reader who was hoping for more on the animals instead.

And that’s another problem; this narrative clashes with the mural itself! He introduces each chapter with a description of an animal from the mural and segues to their history in science. This means having the painting out of order! The first animal in the painting is Psittacotherium, discovered in 1882. The last animal in the painting, Glyptodon, was discovered in 1839! (This is also a geographical mistake by Zallinger-Megatherium and Glyptodon, finishing up the mural, are only found in South America, and so do not fit into the North American scheme of the rest of the piece). So when he starts with Georges Cuvier’s studies of mammoths and mastodons, he must start at the end of the mural! Ironically, Charles Knight’s more episodic style of prehistoric vignettes is more appropriate for this style of narrative!

On the plus side, Wallace gives a great deal of information of the history of paleontology, and fossil mammals’ huge role in understanding concepts of evolution. It’s very informative and quite detailed as the colorful characters from Richard Owen to George Gaylord Simpson make their mark on paleontology. It’s a series of biographies in chronological order, point and simple, and anyone who is interested in the historical side of paleontology should read this book.

However, he hardly ever talks about the animals themselves! Names are dropped, discoveries are mentioned, but their biology, their evolutionary relationships, and any sense of actual paleontological content is absent from the book. In order to talk about the history of the animals of the mural, he discards the animals themselves from his narrative!  This is a major mistake for any paleontology book-to cut out the paleontology. This is a history book, not a science book. You never get a sense of why these paleontologist became so passionate and fascinated by the animals-the paleontologists are discussed as specimens themselves. Imagine a Civil War buff trying to find material on Joseph Johnson and instead reading about his biographers. Imagine a museum with no specimens but instead sculptures of paleontologists and plaques of their biographies.  Simply put, this is not a paleontology book.

Would I recommend this book? Only if you’re interested in the history of paleontology. Otherwise, you’ll find it passable at best and frustrating and confusing at worst. I give it 1 star or 3 out of 10.  I’ve heard his take on marine animals is better, so I will give that book a chance. What to read instead? For a history of paleontology, I suggest Adrienne Mayor’s books The First Fossil Hunters and Fossil Legends of the First Americans. For paleontology itself, mammal paleontology is by far best served by Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids: 65 Million Years of Mammalian Evolution in Europe by Jordi Augusti and Mauricio Anton. If only companion books existed on the Cenozoic of other continents!  These books are far superior to Wallace’s weird little book. I wouldn’t call Beasts of Eden worthless, but I would call it a waste of time and not worth the money. Check it out at the library or buy it at a used bookstore-it’s not worth the cover price at all.

And I’ll do better than Wallace. I’ll post a picture of the mural itself. It’s just a preview from the Yale museum store (buy it and the companion book!) but it’s more than what’s in the book! http://peabody.yale.edu/store/product/guide-age-mammals-mural-2nd-edition