Book Review: Beasts Before Us

Panciroli, Elsa. Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution. (NY: Bloomsbury, 2021) Kindle edition.

I’ve been reading the history of the 1970 cyclone and the birth of Bangladesh. I needed an escape. So I relapsed into some of my older interests and started reading paleontology again. In this case, a book about the pre-mammals and proto-mammals. The book only goes up to the Tertiary, and ends before mammals, monotremes, and marsupials got too dominant. It’s a great book about digging up bones around the world and how the proposed ancestors of mammals developed and succeeded (or didn’t).

Beasts Before Us is both about paleontology and the early mammal-finders, and about the ancestors of mammals. Dr. Panciroli did much of her work in Scotland, and it turns out that Scotland plays an important role in the story of how people sussed out the (presumed) origins of the creatures that became the ancestors of mammals, monotremes, and marsupials. [WordPress, “monotreme” is a word. Trust me.] Or I should say, the few exposures of the type of rock that were laid down when the area that is now Scotland had dinosaurs and other ancient life. That’s part of the problem of finding pre-mammals: they tended to be small, which means fragile and easy to overlook. Dinosaurs were large and cool, and then paleomammals became trendy (but not as much as dinosaurs). Tiny squirrel-like not-mice sorts of things just don’t have the cachet, and don’t get the funding, assuming that people can even find them.

A lot of Panciroli’s book is about tracing the development of life on Earth, how it survived multiple mass extinctions (the Cambrian Extinction, several regional die-offs, the formerly-known-as-K-T Event that ended the dinosaurs . . .) In parallel it traces how we know about the ancestors of creatures. Sometimes, all we have are teeth and a few bits of bone. In other cases, we have entire skeletons with food in the innerds, or in one case with 21 babies.

The book is very well written, although it helps if you have some biology and anatomy background, because the author defines terms once or twice, then expects you to remember them. This is more of a problem in the e-book, where you can’t go flipping back a few pages to refresh your memory. The author also jumps at times from the bones to the people who found them, especially if those people were not European or British males. I didn’t have trouble keeping track of the larger story, but the back and forth can be a bit distracting and require a momentary mental reset. Some of the newer terminology is also distracting for those of us who grew up with Precambrian, Cambrian, Tertiary, Quaternary, and so on.

Dr. Panciroli goes to great lengths to remind readers that 1) anthropogenic climate change will doom creatures, 2) that native peoples were aware of the fossils before European explorers showed up, 3) women have been involved in the field but did not get as much prestige as others, and 4) that there is no such thing as linear and clear-cut evolution based on survival of the fittest. The last chapter is about how anthropogenic global warming will cause problems, and how those few creatures that do manage to hang in there will manage to cope with the inevitable disaster. I had some trouble with her pointing out that Native Americans and Mongolians and Chinese knew about the fossils because she implies that the locals knew what the funny bones/rocks were and the Europeans ignored this valuable Native wisdom. “Dragon bones” used for traditional medicine is a rather different understanding compared to “early Sauropod that lived in a humid, swampy region and raised its young in herds.” Nor do I care to be informed several times that every time I look at a dino skeleton or mammal skeleton, it was stolen. Was it? From whom? Who owned it? Who cared about it? That part of the story didn’t make the book.

I’d recommend the book for those who are serious about the hard science of pre-mammals and their development. I learned a great deal, and enjoyed the biographies of the people who worked in the field. I skimmed or skipped over the modern environmental assumptions, and I admit I was a little disappointed that Dr. Panciroli puts so much faith in the assumption that models are truth. As mentioned above, it helps if you are familiar with taxonomy and basic biology, but it isn’t necessary to get the gist of the story.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no benefit or remuneration from the publisher or author for this review.


6 thoughts on “Book Review: Beasts Before Us

  1. “Monotreme” is a perfectly good term. Knowing scientific terms can be very useful.
    I had a deprived childhood. It wasn’t until college that I heard the words of normal discourse ( as opposed to seeing them written on sidewalks). There is a certain comfort in being able to say, “You make a Heterocephalus look good!”

  2. “anthropogenic global warming”.

    Right, those ancient mammals and dinosaurs caused global warming long before humans came around. [Sarcastic Grin]

    Somebody who studies paleontology should know that the Earth has been warmer in the past and colder in the past.

    Hey! Where did that soap-box come from????

  3. Glad you liked it! This was a paradigm-busting book for me. I think her point that “bigger” and “carnivorous” have been assumed to equal “success” in the past is right on. She also points out that the “linear progression” assumption about evolutionary “progress” is likewise an assumption imposed on the data. Real life is far more complicated — and interesting!

    • Oh yes, and it’s a very good addition to the general science literature! I just wish she’d had a lighter touch on current concerns – they distracted me from the core of the book.

  4. For a print version, I’d band or clip the sermon portions so as not to waste my time. The rest sounds interesting.

    Teams of medium omnivores seem to have won for now, unless someone’s aliens make a breakthrough.

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