Written in large, friendly, ocean-blue letters on the cover of “At the Water’s Edge” by Carl Zimmer are the words:
“FISH WITH FINGERS,
WHALES WITH LEGS,
and How Life Came Ashore but
Then Went Back to Sea Again”
ATWE gives a thorough detail of the evolutionary trip from the ocean to land by fish, and the return to the ocean by terrestrial mammals (a quick overview of how this occurred to a group of terrestrial reptiles, now extinct, is given in the final chapter of the book).
I must say, after reading the first 20 or so pages of the book, I was completely downtrodden by how heavily it is studded with prosaic workmanship. Carl Zimmer writes like an American Shakespeare, literally exhausting my English skills with endless dictionary uses for monosyllables that are apparently used all the time by Americans (the word “puck” springs to mind. We don’t have hockey games in Israel).
Truth be told, my main objection to this book is that it’s too well-written for me. It’s written like a work of art, each word carefully planned and positioned in its shiny, gilded slot. I’ve yet to run into a popular science book written badly. Scientists are extremely erudite people, having spent most of their lives with their nose in a book, but Zimmer is not a scientist. Frankly, I have no idea what Zimmer’s formal training is, but apparently, and way more distinctly than any working scientist is, Zimmer is a writer – which is why reading this book was so such a different experience for me.
Let me further drive that point home . I’m an English-Hebrew translator by trade (and an English/Hebrew scribe when translation jobs are scant). I spent most of my waking hours translating English into Hebrew and backwards or sifting said langauges into written words, and I have read at least 10 books in English for each book I read in Hebrew, textbooks included.
Reading this book was not easy for me.
Zimmer uses grandiloquence the same way bats use their wings: carelessly and efficiently – completely terrifying anyone other than bats (well, those kinds of bats, anyway).
ATWE brings a very thorough detail of fossil whale and tetrapod history – specifically as it pertains to their respective voyages into and out of the sea. Knowing that this is the intent of the book, I thought it would help elucidate the very vague picture I had of whale evolution by depicting the less famous fossils.
Anyone who reads at Pharyngula, or anyone who’s interested in evolution at all, probably knows of Ambulocetus, Pakicetus and Basilosaurus. Those are transitional fossils alright, but up until reading this book, I could barely tell how each of these fossils is transitional, and I couldn’t say at all which ancient whale evolved from which.
The truly sad part is that after 240 pages of well-detailed overview of the fossil, molecular and comparative anatomical data – I am now even more confused about the cetacean evolution.
First, according to Zimmer, no one actually knows which paleospecies evolved from which. This isn’t much of a problem, since paleontology doesn’t predict we find direct ancestors and their direct descendants. It only predicts certain side-branches with certain “transitional traits” to exist, and predicts them to exist at very particular strata.
This hasn’t helped me much in the way of confusion, though. Zimmer introduces a plethora of fossils that aren’t regularly talked about – not in popular science books about evolution or even introductory textbooks about evolution. Zimmer has a penchant for delving into the history of famous fossil discoverers and important historical figures in biology. At some occasions, studding science with biographies, and occasionally turning this book with a salamander at the cover to be a bit more like a historical novel. Sometimes – I liked that a lot. In others – I just wished he’d stop yapping about that 19th century philosopher and just get on to talking about evolution.
The book did much more to confuse me with the morass of jargon, cetacean anatomy and historical esoterica than it did to innervate the blind spots in my knowledge of whale evolution. This is probably more my fault than Zimmer’s, since he did do an exquisite job as a writer. I think any layman can enjoy the book if he’s content with being lost in jargon or with being aware only to a small part of the big picture while reading it. Even a complete biological novice would enjoy this book. Since I read like 10-15 pages a day, any mentions of earlier chapters were completely lost on me, and it can be rather frustrating to be constantly reminded that I don’t really remember the earlier parts of the book.
But either way, some stuff stick, and some of them are quite amazing. While I left this book feeling rather confused and ashamed at my poor comprehension (and/or English skills, it appears) – I did learn a LOT about cetacean/tetrapod evolution on the way, and despite how I may feel right now – that was my intent when I ordered this book. I would make a shitty job at trying to give an overview of how such evolution occurred on a greater scale, but personally – I have been rewarded with knowledge that is hard to come by.
I can thank Carl Zimmer for that.