Examine your wrists. Flex and extend them. Reconnect with their full range of motion, how they enable your hands and fingers to pry, snap, fold, and type. Now close your eyes and imagine a fish paddling in a shallow mudflat, a fish whose fins are capable of lifting it out of the water — a fish with wrists.
All vertebrates, including humans and fish, are derived from the same evolutionary lineage. Unlike the invertebrate’s reliance on chitin, however, vertebrates are united by their bony skeletons: ridges of curvilinear bone that roll like foothills down our spines, and minute bones that transmit vibrations from drum to inner ear. These are the makings of evolution, the transition of forms across species and over time. They include the parsimony of traits, as well as the homologies, parts that bind current life to the past and one species to another.
Evolution is the subject, and title, of a bold new coffee-table book by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu with vivid black-and-white photographs of vertebrate skeletons by Patrick Gries. Throughout the book we are invited to gaze into the looking glass of time, where species arise (the mammals after the dinosaurs) and disappear (the dodo and sea cow). Where traits diminish (some whales have vestigial legs) or become exaggerated (the titanic tusk of the African elephant). The text is part homage to Darwin’s seminal theory of natural selection, part discourse on the rich biology (embryology, genetics, and paleontology) that surrounds the study of evolution as a modern science.
De Panafieu’s elegant, if at times textbook, prose artfully addresses the spectrum of evolutionary theory: sexual selection, microevolution, phylogeny, and extinction are a few of the topics he covers.
But it is Gries’s crystalline illustration of these topics — the O’Keefe-like juxtaposition of horse and donkey skulls next to the text on hybridization, the close-up of a giraffe’s profile with twisting vertebrae as we read of Lamarck’s alternative theory — that completes the book’s approach. Which is to narrate the story of evolution, the endless tales of continual adaptation and species transformation, while keeping its mystery and portraying its beauty.