For example, the teeth of some animals are so big and sharp that it becomes a major problem to figure out how they may have used them. The hunting techniques of Pleistocene era saber-toothed cats are still a mystery to paleontologists. One of the most enduring mysteries about the dinosaurs is what happened to them. Many scientists believe that the last of the dinosaurs was wiped out 65 million years ago by a gigantic asteroid that slammed into the Earth near what is now Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. But although the evidence for the cataclysmic arrival of the asteroid at the place known as Chicxulub is certain, everything that followed (or didn't) is not. Did it trigger global wildfires? Thousand-foot-tall tsunamis? Yearlong acid rains? A million years of volcanic activity? All of the above? None of the above? The jury is still out.
In "Beasts of Eden," David Rains Wallace has framed his study of the evolution of mammals around Rudolf Zallinger's mid-1940s mural "The Age of Mammals" at Yale University's Peabody Museum in New Haven. (Zallinger also painted a larger one, the "Age of Reptiles," but its contents are not so closely related to the subject of Wallace's book, which is subtitled "Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution.") Wallace loves this mural. In fact, he compares it to Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling and says, "[W]hatever their differences, history impels us to view them both as mythological evocations of deep time."
I'm not sure that the Sistine ceiling evokes "deep time," except perhaps that the Bible was written a few thousand years ago, and anyway, in Michelangelo's day, everybody probably believed that the Earth and everything else was formed in six days by God's decree. Zallinger's mural, while large and imposing, is not terribly accurate in light of what we now know about early mammals, so it is a curious framework at best. But if Wallace wants us to see the evolution of mammals in terms of Zallinger's depictions, he might have included more illustrations from it.
Larson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his book about the Scopes trial, revisits that historic day in 1925 when John Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 for teaching in the public schools of Rhea County, Tenn., "a certain theory that denied the story of the divine creation of man, as taught in the Bible, and did teach instead thereof that man had descended from a lower order of animals." Larson discusses the early 20th century anti-evolution movement, but he does not address the battle between the creationists and the evolutionists that is still being fought.
There are many who cleave to the notion that the origin of species was the handiwork of God and for whom the Bible serves quite nicely, thank you, as an explanation of how Earth and its inhabitants were created. For many, the "theory of evolution" is but one theory, and they see no reason why alternative ones shouldn't also be taught to schoolchildren. In his 2003 book "Creation: Evidence of God's Design," Grant R. Jeffrey, a former financial planner from Canada who earned a doctorate in Bible studies from Louisiana Baptist University, writes:
"Despite the fact that the theory of evolution has been almost universally embraced by scientists, intellectuals, educators, and the media for over a century until quite recently, new scientific discoveries in the last two decades have revealed that evolution is now collapsing."
It isn't, of course, but we find ourselves living in a time when the teaching of evolution is being challenged. Yes, there are gaps in the fossil record, but the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As sure as God made little green apples, evolution occurred. As we understand it, evolution is a magnificent -- but unfinished -- symphony. Let Larson and Wallace conduct it for you. *