Prehistoric life: Evolution and the fossil record, by Bruce S. Lieberman & Roger L. Kaesler. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2010. No. of pages: viii+385 pp. Price: UK£39.95. ISBN 978-0-632-04472-6 (paperback).


This book is aimed at students taking geology or palaeontology as a secondary subject and not for those planning to specialise in Earth sciences. It will provide them with a good overview of palaeontology and evolutionary theory.

The text is extremely readable, and the style is knowledgeable and relaxed. It begins with a good general introduction to fossils, the fossil record, systematics and evolution. Mass extinctions are covered in some detail, examining the five major extinctions and considering the current biodiversity crisis, a theme that is revisited in other sections. The second half of the Prehistoric Life includes chapters examining climate and life, Precambrian evolution, the Cambrian radiation, the development of reefs through time and key events in vertebrate evolution. The book also includes chapters of popular interest — how fossils have been the origins of many myths and legends, and whether we will encounter life on other planets. It finishes by looking at humans, examining our origins and the future of our species in a changing global environment.

Many chapters can be read in isolation. This does result in some repetition but is probably necessary for the target audience. As a result, the book will be useful to teachers wishing to set just one or two subjects as part of a general course in evolutionary biology. Current thinking is put into context by discussing the history of geology and showing how the subject has developed. For students wishing to investigate topics in more detail, an up to date list of additional reading is provided at the end of each chapter.

The authors use a wide and creative range of examples to make important points — most unusually, rap music to illustrate evolution. Some of the section titles are very engaging. I particularly liked: “Darwin and Wallace: never ask a stranger to present your paper at a meeting you cannot attend”, and “Paleontologists have come from many walks of life and have sported many different hairdos”.

The book would have benefited from further editing. There are annoying grammatical errors, in particular, the incorrect use of apostrophes in many places. The cover photograph is striking, but the illustrations inside are merely adequate and do not do the text justice; many are acquired from stock image libraries. The use of colour is limited to four palaeogeographical reconstructions.

With these reservations, I can recommend this book to its target audience and to first year geology students with no prior knowledge of palaeontology. It would also be of interest to general readers, although the large text-book format and price means that it may not reach this group.