15 December 2022
Beasts Before Us, by Elsa Panciroli
Posted by Callan Bentley
So many books have been written about dinosaurs, but this one looks at a deeper history of another important group: our own. Beasts Before Us is “the untold story of mammal origins and evolution.” The Cenozoic is often dubbed “the age of mammals,” but the story of our hairy, milk-guzzling brethren goes much deeper into geologic time. There have sort of been two ages of “mammals,” author paleontologist Elsa Panciroli points out. The first was in the late Paleozoic, when the terrestrial realm was “dominated” by synapsids. Ultimately, these animals were ancestral to the line of evolutionary descent that became mammals. They were their own entity, though they are often dubbed “mammal-like reptiles,” Panciroli makes the case that “reptile-like mammals” might be a better descriptor. I really enjoyed the deep, detailed discussion exploring the various proposed explanations for the sails on the backs of certain synapsids, such as Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus. Were they for thermoregulation, fat storage support, sexual display, or defense? Panciroli explores the pros and cons of each idea. It was refreshingly robust. She follows the evolutionary story into the Mesozoic, when crocodilians and then dinosaurs “take over” the land, but mammals and their ancestors were surprisingly common and diverse, if not as robustly represented in the fossil record. Panciroli relates tales of her research in various parts of the world, but particularly on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Her perspective is fresh and enthusiastic, which helps compensate for the (to me) bewildering array of paleontological and anatomical jargon. The book is infused with a social and political perspective that could be dubbed “woke,” with significant attention paid to the colonialism, racism, and sexism that unfortunately permeated paleontology’s earlier years, and whose legacy haunts us still. She also devotes book-conclusion attention to what may be the most significant aspect of mammal evolution – that one of their species has rapidly transferred a large portion of the planet’s fossil carbon back into its atmosphere, with effects that will be felt all over the planet for a long time to come. There were a few small errors that better editing would have caught – substituting “Mohican” for “Mohawk,” for instance. Another that will rankle geochemists is abbreviating uranium as “Ur” rather than “U.” I read the first edition, hardcover, so that sort of thing may be cleaned up in subsequent printings.
Your use of the word “woke” is interesting to me. As a Canadian, I have gotten use to the word “woke” being used in the media for describing things/ideas not liked by those who’s political ideologies lean heavily to the right. However, your use refers to the actually meaning of the word, which is to be aware of past wrongs committed by those in the majority on those in the minority. I am happy to say I am “woke”, particularly when it comes to the past treatment of Canada’s First Nations communities. It is too bad that the word “woke” has been co-opted by others to slander their political ideological opponents. All the best Callan!
Yes, exactly. I reckon I consider myself woke, too – or at least aspiring to be woke. As far as I can parse it, Panciroli’s political viewpoint seems to gel with my own.
It is indeed one of those words the right has co-opted as a derogatory term – but I am fine retaining it, “owning it,” regardless of what the nattering nabobs of negativity choose to do.
Hi Callan, I recently picked up a copy of The Rise and Reign of Mammals by Steve Brusatte. I wonder if are familiar with it and have any thoughts on how it compares with Panciroli’s book? Best!
I haven’t read it yet, but I have this volume and his dinosaur book on my list of books to read.