Author: Sean B. Carroll

2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Filed Under: Nonfiction.

Remarkable Creatures is a somewhat deceiving title. It’s not about ancient creatures, but rather the men and women–geologists and paleontologists, naturalists and anthropologists, chemists and geneticists–who have strived to uncover how life works. This is a popular-science-angled history of evolutionary science.

Carroll aptly depicts a universal desire in humans to understand the structure of the larger world around them. The question of human origin has always been buried in that desire. Religions have been fielding this question for millennia and, for almost that whole time, faith has violently monopolized the official answer. And so, the study of evolution has required cautious steps. Carroll begins his story with Darwin, and with those who inspired him (Humbolt, et al). From there he travels through eras and schools of thought, documenting how our knowledge of the world and of ourselves, well, evolved over the past 150 years.

The book is well structured, moving from discipline to discipline cleanly and mostly chronologically. Each segment primarily focuses on one player, though chapters are dedicated to peers, colleagues, and successors. It’s a narrative approach I really enjoy in nonfiction, specifically in popular science. The jargon is relatively light (though it does pick up near the end when DNA gets into the game), keeping things informal and engaging. In each segment we see the focus scientist, such as Darwin, propose something radical against tremendous odds. Sometimes through a unique trait and sometimes through fortune and happenstance, these men and women  are vindicated. At the heart of these radical ideas is a commonality: we came from somewhere identifiable. It morphs and changes as new idealogical, scientific, and physical obstacles interrupt its path, but that central idea perseveres and matures.

The structural parallels to the evolutionary trees are readily visible. And Carroll’s point is clear: humanity’s knowledge of itself is still in its infancy, and we have a lot of growing to do. Science has advanced tremendously in modern history, but there is so much further to go (and there are still dinosaurs to contend with). Mankind needed a little luck and a lot of surviving of the fittest in order to get where we are, and there’s no reason we can’t keep on going and evolving. Maybe not physically–at least not in our lifetimes–but intellectually. Rather than what we’ve dug up and observed around us, the remarkable creatures are us.

Similar Reads: The Dragon Seekers (McGowan)