The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us by Stephen Brusatte
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I think Stephen Brusatte is one of the best science writers I've read recently. He has a great way of organizing information and writing about it in a manner that doesn't feel condescending to laypeople, all the while tackling some very knotty topics.
Those skills are on full display in this book. This is a good thing, as the history of mammals gets into deeper scientific weeds than his previous book, the excellent The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, ever did. As he reveals, the evolution of mammals goes further back than most of us ever suspected, and took some surprising twists and turns along the way. I learned more than I ever thought could be said about teeth and dentition and ankle bones, along with the many different classifications of early mammals. It's pretty deep stuff, even as well as he writes it. You definitely have to be a science nerd to slog through some of this.
After we get past the death of the dinosaurs and into the Ice Age, and thus into the more familiar territory of mammoths and sabertooth tigers, the book becomes a bit easier to read. The final chapter deals with human evolution, and adds a sad postscript: many of the Ice Age megafauna would likely be alive today, if it weren't for us.
It comes down to this: if our human species had not spread around the world, then a lot of the megafauna would still be here. Maybe not all of them, but probably most. Dinosaurs like T. Rex and Triceratops were felled by an asteroid. For mammoths and sabertooths, we were the asteroid.
There are many illustrations to accompany the eras and fossils being discussed, and endnotes that are almost as interesting as the main text. I don't think this book is quite as accessible as his first, but that's due to the complexity of the topic. If you like chewing over some meaty scientific concepts, this book is very tasty indeed.
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