Do an internet search of the word “origins,” and you’ll come up with scores of volumes on the subject, including the revolutionary “The Origin of Species,” penned in 1859 by Charles Darwin.
Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes is the latest to tackle this broad topic with “Origins: The Search for Our Prehistoric Past,” released Sept. 6 by Cornell University Press.
In “Origins,” Rhodes explores the origin and evolution of living things, the changing environments in which they have developed, and the challenges we now face on an increasingly crowded and polluted planet. He argues that the future well-being of our burgeoning population depends in no small part on our understanding of life’s past, its long and slow development, and its intricate interdependencies.
Rhodes examines the origins of living things through the lens of a system of classification known as “cladistics” – based on supposed inherited characteristics, rather than observable structural similarities. Cladistics uses these inferred relationships, based on lines of descent, to arrange biological groups into a branching hierarchy. These groups, known as “clades,” consist of an ancestral organism and all of its supposed descendants, living and fossil.
The system can cause confusion, as some recognized groups are reorganized and renamed. Rhodes paints a clearer picture through the use of several general cladograms, showing broadly accepted patterns of ancestry, while retaining the use of familiar categories (reptiles, amphibians, etc.) in the text.
In thumbnail sketches throughout the book, Rhodes also gives nods to several key figures, including Darwin, who have helped unravel the long, complicated history of life on Earth.
Rhodes’ accessible and extensively illustrated treatment of the origins narrative describes the nature of the search for prehistoric life, the significance of geologic time, the emergence and spread of flora and fauna, the evolution of primates, and the emergence of modern humans. Warren D. Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, says this new volume is more than just an update of “The Evolution of Life,” which Rhodes penned 54 years ago.
“He provides a new narrative of the history of life on Earth for a new set of generations,” Allmon said. “He covers familiar territory with a fresh and lyrical prose that reveals new insights into species past and present and the people who have studied them. This is a perfect introduction by a virtuoso.”