Gaining Ground: The Origin and Early Evolution of Tetrapods
by Jennifer A. Clack
The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
by Richard Dawkins
I found that Richard Dawkin’s Ancestor’s Tale and Jennifer Clack’s Gaining Ground complemented each other very well and would highly recommend both books. Ancestor’s Tale is very loosely modeled on The Canterbury Tales and traces human evolution back to the beginnings of life, while Gaining Ground is focused specifically on the evolution of tetrapods and how they transitioned from the sea to life on land.
Gaining Ground is a much more specialized work. It presents the subject from the viewpoint of a working paleontologist. There is a lot of technical discussion of anatomical detail, but Clack does a good job of making the subject accessible to the general reader. Early on she almost apologizes for having to use such technical vocabulary, but admits that “there simply are no other words available.” Among the more fascinating discoveries, was that the earliest tetrapods had more than 5 digits, which had always been thought of as one of their defining characteristics. For example, Acanthostega had 8 on its limbs. Dawkin’s mentions this in his book also.
After describing the similarities between fish and tetrapods, Clack put into words exactly how I was feeling:
It is this formula that humans and other tetrapods share most obviously with their lobe-finned relatives—and one you can contemplate each time you look at your own arm or leg.
After reading these books it’s hard to look at the human form and not think of fins!