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The Garden of Ediacara (Mark McMenamin, 1998)

Check Amazon.co.uk for this book.

ISBN 0-231-10558-4


This book both chronicles the author’s search for Ediacaran fossils and attempts to interpret the biota and its significance to evolutionary biology. McMenamin recounts his searches in Mexico, Namibia, and Australia, and includes a few drawings and photographs of specimens and the locales in which they were collected.

There is some interesting information here, but to get to it though, you have to wade through a lot of personal anecdotes in tedious detail and other interjections of minimal relevance. On the Amazon site, an equally frustrated "reader from Boise, Idaho," concludes:

‘I have read the book nearly twice and each time close it with a deep sense of disappointment. The problem I have with the story is the personal observation and biographical material. I wanted to read about Ediacaran animals not the Namibian airport, recalcitrant gatekeepers and inane diary entries about who the author had dinner with. Some of the book could have been taken up with more photos and perhaps professional sketches [rather than] crayon drawings from Mrs Thompson’s second grade class.

‘The ideas the author presents on the fauna are what made me get through the book at all. Those were great but occupy very little of the book.’

A similar criticism is logged by professional paleontologist, Ben Waggoner (Department of Biology, University of Central Arkansas): "Scientists and laymen alike
will be turned off by the book’s jagged organization, stylistic weaknesses, constant horn-blowing, and endless speculation." (Waggoner's full review here.)

Extrapolating wildly from little or no evidence is not atypical of McMenamin.  But don't take my word for it; here's what the noted paleontologist Richard Fortey has to say:

'[In The Emergence of Animals, Mark and Dianna McMenamin] claimed up to a hundred [most modern textbooks list about thirty] animal phyla 'exploding' into life in the Cambrian; most of them are also claimed to have died out, leaving no progeny. ... This view out-Goulded Gould ten-fold.  The extraordinary thing to an objective reader is that there is no attempt to justify why these hundred or so 'Cambrian phyla' should be recognised. ... Not a word. ... One is driven to the conclusion that these particular writers regard it as only necessary to appear on the Cambrian stage dressed in any sort of odd costume to be called a phylum.'
– Richard Fortey, Trilobite, pp. 134-135

I don't think I'll trouble to read The Emergence of Animals.

This book features far too much author. In my experience, most scientists are a modest lot but, unfortunately, some of their popularist representatives seem to have an ego the size of all outdoors, and this guy is clearly one of them. However, ego is not the book's foremost defect: There are two other, and rather more serious, shortcomings.

The first is one of veracity. Waggoner again: "[A] serious flaw is the relatively small number of photos of the Ediacaran fossils. Most of its illustrations are fairly simple, unshaded line drawings, which aren’t always accurate – I know that Bomakellia doesn’t have the ornamented glabella-like thingamajig that figure 5.7 illustrates. A book that purports to solve the Mystery of Ediacaran Life really ought to include more photographs, camera lucida drawings, and professional-quality reconstructions of the specimens...." The diagram Waggoner refers to is minimalist – almost child-like in its simplicity. The lines drawn on the boss at the top of the figure cannot be misinterpreted for shading or anything else: So, if they are not present on the original specimen, what can we believe except that McMenamin is making it up? On page 35 (reference to note 67) McMenamin refers to the Middle Cambrian arthropod "Marella" as "a true soft-bodied trilobite." Indeed? In fact, Marrella (with two 'r's) is neither soft-bodied, nor a trilobite.

Second, McMenamin presents extraordinary interpretations based upon – as far as I can see – no evidence at all, let alone the very strong evidence normally expected when advancing any radical idea [ sidebar].  As another Amazon commentator opined, the author advances hypotheses without any "real scientific test of these ideas" relying instead upon "over extended analogies and conjecture."  Quite so.  For example, McMenamin concludes – on the basis of what evidence eludes me – that although they were related to animals, Ediacarans were not animals in the strict sense, because they never passed through an embryonic blastula stage (which is peculiar to animal life forms, as far as we know).  He believes they developed a central nervous system and a brain independent from animal evolution.  Well, I guess that's fine but, for all the evidence McMenamin provides, he might equally well have suggested they beamed down from Mars.

Recommendation:  If you ignore the unsubstantiated conjecture, and have the patience to battle your way through the author’s I said..., I did..., I am..., then McMenamin’s book contains a few interesting snippets for anyone interested in the Vendian biota: Half a star.

A better read is Chapter 3 of "Major Events in the History of Life" (J. William Schopf ed.) in which Bruce Runnegar writes about the fossils (rather than about Bruce Runnegar).

Look and Feel:   Hardback; good paper; indifferent line drawings; good resolution b&w photographs; variable colour plates (and, of 18 plates, only five depict fossils!   Plate 1 illustrates McMenamin’s Mexican identity card, plate 4 depicts a packet of Lithops seeds....)


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