Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life

Bloomsbury. Nov. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781632869128. $28. SCI
How did Darwin write On the Origin of Species without knowledge of genetics or biochemistry? Maddox (Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA) offers an answer. Using Victorian geologist Charles Lyell's career as a central theme, the author supplies vignettes that explain evolution's foundations through three 19th-century geological principles: the Earth is extremely old; the biblical flood never occurred; and species come and go. With silky prose, Maddox opens the world of gentleman geologists, enriching the text with social and historical background, quotes, and poetry. She also emphasizes the contributions of women and those not independently wealthy. However, there are several minor flaws: Maddox does not mention that uniformitarianism allows for natural cataclysms and asserts that genomics, not big data and computer simulation, revolutionized modern paleontology. Despite these issues, this is an accessible, enjoyable, and authoritative read.
VERDICT Anyone curious about evolution, geology, or paleontology's roots won't want to miss this work, especially fans of Rob Wesson's Darwin's First Theory and Edmund Blair Bolles's The Ice Finders.
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