Written by: Michael Benton
Published by: Wiley Blackwell
Copyright: © 2015
Tracing our ancestry back in time is a popular pastime for a significant fraction of the population. Usually this involves investigating our direct descendants and nationalities and staying within the boundaries of a few generations of our species. Professor Benton takes our genealogy a tad further to the beginning of the Cambrian some half billion plus years ago and carries it to the present. Along the way we run into the rather unsettling ancestral tidbit that one of our giga-times great grandparents was an elongated, bulbous slug like organism in the subphylum Urochordata with a general name of sea squirt. Imagining that we evolved from one-celled organisms is conceivable and possibly non-repugnant, but making a stop along the way as a sea squirt just defies all conventions and manners of civilized evolutionary behavior. Laughing at us or with us seems a distinction worth exploring.
Another stop along the evolutionary highway was the once puzzling case of the ubiquitous conodonts. Into the later part of the 20th century, conodonts, mainly teeth like elements, were especially useful index fossils from the Cambrian until they disappeared from the record at the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event boundary, but no one knew what they were; what family the species belonged to or what they looked like. In the 1983 the mystery was solved with the discovery of eel like soft body imprints from Early Carboniferous rocks around Edinburgh, Scotland with additional, later discoveries coming from Wisconsin, USA and South Africa, which placed them firmly in the subphylum Vertebrata. Discovering that you were a fish in your past life is certainly an improvement over a lumpy sea squirt.
This book provides an exhaustive review of every major group of living and fossil vertebrates. The primary audience for this work is graduate students in geology or biology but even a layman, such as myself, will find this text not only highly readable and enlightening but immensely enjoyable. An appendix gives a cladistic scheme of all living and fossil vertebrates; Professor Benton refers to it as a conservative cladistic scheme, which adds an exclamation point to the books voyage through the tree of life.
Dr. Michael Benton is a British palaeontologist and professor in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 2014.