This book wins for one of my top three books of the year. I’d read his previous book, The Rise and Reign of the Dinosaurs, a year ago and could not put it down. Mammals brought me the same level of joy.
The overarching themes of this book are: the success of mammals was never assured and in fact was precarious at best; the evolutionary changes that differentiated mammals weren’t the cause of their success, instead it was their ability to quickly adapt to and exploit niches while other groups grew and dominated; the environment and plant evolution played an outside role in mammalian evolution; and the evolution of mammals wasn’t a straight line of ascension but instead a tangled hedgerow of evolutionary development amongst different groups and types of mammals, any one of which could have succeeded instead of the dominant forms we see today.
One of Brusatte’s writing talents is in making obscure details seem wonderous and vitally important, and placing them in a context an enthusiast can follow along. You wouldn’t think pages and pages of minutae about orthodontia could be fascinating, but he makes it so, with such skill that I found myself anticipating developments before he laid them out. I also had no idea the ancestor of primates, the mammal that began to develop bone traits that all mammals share, evolved after the KT impact that ended the dinosaurs and possibly just before it! I’m a very enthusiastic lover of dinosaurs and ancient life since childhood, so take that assessment as you wish, but I can confidently say Brusatte’s writing chops will hook any lay science reader.
That links to two of Brusatte’s other writing talents: his joy and inclusivity. Brusatte’s writes about the other paleontologists and scientists he met and studied under, and his own boyhood as a paleontology nerd leading to a PhD and teaching position in Edinburgh, but the book doesn’t center his story. He writes generously and effusively about the other scientists involved and their accomplishments, with well chosen anecdotes that flesh them out as real people. People across time periods, genders, nationalities, and other backgrounds and facets are woven into this story of mammals and the discoveries about them, and Brusatte is their scientist hype man. It’s the kind of attitude and voice that I wish more people had, and which inspires me in my own writing.
Overall, top marks, 5 out of 5 stars. This is scientific writing for the lay person at its best. 📚🦖🐘