On the positive side is the book’s scope. For a first book it almost seems as if Switek wants to tackle everything, leaving him only the details to work on in later works. As with the scientific examples, Switek does a good job of limning the lives, interactions, and motives of many of the key players in archaeological history — the usual suspects like James Hutton, Charles Lyell, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, O.C. Marsh, E.D. Cope, and Richard Owen. In this regard his breeze through paleontology’s past reminds me of a modern version of Daniel J. Boorstin’s books on American history. And that, by the way, is a good thing. Switek also does much to demolish the claims of non-believers in evolution regarding the idea that ‘missing links’ disprove evolution.
Written In Stone reads quickly and builds upon its earlier chapters, much in the way some of the best allusive poems do. There are similarities in the lives of the scientists, or in the ways they sought their goals, or in the misinterpretations of certain fossils by one or another man, that Switek uses to sketch an outline of science as a wholly human endeavor — fallible yet correctable. And it is the very fact that science is fallible but correctable that makes it infinitely preferable to the granitic density of religions. Switek also brings out little known tidbits about the careers of the scientists he writes of, such as Richard Owens — the staunch anti-natural selectionist, being prescient in his belief that most dinosaurs must have been warm-blooded.
Another strength of the book is that Switek demurs the easy fallacy of believing evolution is somehow directed toward complexity, intelligence, or any other such goal. He shows the power of contingency, and claims that, if the evolution of life on earth could be replayed, it would not likely result in humans again. I agree with this, although I think Switek does err, as do many other scientists, in believing that the seeming randomness of evolution, in the particular, applies in the general. As example, if your parents had copulated five minutes sooner or later than when they did, you- the individual reading these words, would likely not exist, because the very sperm cell that contributed half of its DNA to you, would not have fertilized your mother’s ovum at that exact moment. But, there would still likely be someone, with your same mix of DNA, existing, although perhaps not reading this review right now. In a similar way, many scientists try to dismiss human intelligence as a fluke, not realizing that, indeed, just as there is a chance zero intelligent beings would have evolved on earth, and A, B, or C not occurred, it is equally likely that multiple intelligent beings may have evolved, and involved millions or hundreds of millions of years sooner.