In the Blink of an Eye

Overview

The Cambrian Explosion is universally referred to as biology's "Big Bang." About 550 million years ago, there was literally an explosion of life forms, as all the major animal groups suddenly and dramatically appeared. Why did it happen this way? Why didn't these creatures continue the slow, plodding pace of evolution, appearing only very gradually in the fossil record? Although several books have been written about this surprising event, none have explained why it occurred. Indeed, none were able to.Here, for ...

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Overview

The Cambrian Explosion is universally referred to as biology's "Big Bang." About 550 million years ago, there was literally an explosion of life forms, as all the major animal groups suddenly and dramatically appeared. Why did it happen this way? Why didn't these creatures continue the slow, plodding pace of evolution, appearing only very gradually in the fossil record? Although several books have been written about this surprising event, none have explained why it occurred. Indeed, none were able to.Here, for the first time, Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker reveals his theory of this great flourishing of life. Parker's "Light Switch Theory" holds that it was the development of vision in primitive animals that caused the explosion. Precambrian creatures were unable to see, making it impossible to find friend or foe. With the evolution of the eye, the size, shape, color, and behavior of animals was suddenly revealed for the first time. Once the lights were "turned on," all animals had to either adapt or die, and in a geological instant, the world became a very different place. A controversial theory but one that is quickly gaining ground, the Light Switch Theory promises to revolutionize our understanding of life and light. Drawing on evidence not just from biology but also from geology, physics, chemistry, history, and art, In the Blink of an Eye is the fascinating story of a young scientist's intellectual journey, and a celebration of the scientific method.

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Editorial Reviews

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The Cambrian Explosion was one of the great mysteries of evolution. The sudden proliferation of life forms 550 million years ago baffled even Darwin, who, in The Origin of Species, admitted that such rapid diversification presented a valid argument against his theory. But now, a century and a half later, 34-year-old Oxford University researcher Andrew Parker advances a new explanation of the Cambrian Explosion so compelling that many prominent scientists have accepted its plausibility. Parker contends that it was the development of sight in animals that caused biology's Big Bang. His account of how he solved the problem of the origin of biodiversity unfolds with the excitement of a topnotch whodunit.
American Scientist
[Parker's] central argument certainly deserves careful attention, especially as it aims to provide a unique and hitherto unrecognized solution to one of evolution's most significant conundrums.
July-August 2003
Kirkus Reviews
Parker makes a compelling case...It's a neat theory.
Roanoke Times
A brilliant and eminently readable evolutionary detective tale...[Parker's] energy and intelligence are undeniable.
August 17, 2003
San Jose Mercury News
I don't think you can find a more reader-friendly introduction to evolutionary biology.
6/22/03
The Washington Post
We do have a well-written book, containing much really interesting science and a good strong hypothesis that will surely stimulate others to praise, to criticize and try to refine or replace. That is to say much. — Michael Ruse
Publishers Weekly
Oxford University zoologist Parker tackles one of biology's biggest mysteries in this nontechnical account. He provides a relatively simple explanation for the sudden explosion of life forms that defines the boundary between the pre-Cambrian and Cambrian eras approximately 543 million years ago: "The Cambrian explosion was triggered by the sudden evolution of vision" in simple organisms. In Parker's "Light Switch" theory, active predation became possible with the advent of vision, and prey species found themselves under extreme pressure to adapt in ways that would make them less likely to be spotted. New habitats opened as organisms were able to see their environment for the first time, and an enormous amount of specialization occurred as species differentiated. Parker claims that his theory is far more robust than previous attempts to explain the surge in diversity, even those most recently advanced by proponents of a snowball earth (the theory presented by Gabrielle Walker in Snowball Earth, see Forecasts, Jan. 20). In readable prose, Parker provides detailed information on the fossil record as well as a wealth of interesting material on the role light plays in environments and how vision operates across a host of species. Although at times his tangents are a bit distracting, Parker's book will bring his controversial ideas to the general public. Photos and line drawings. (Apr.) Forecast: Book review editors might review this together with Snowball Earth, enhancing sales of each. Parker will also cross the pond for a six-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
The refinement of what is known about the evolutionary process continues with the work of Parker, who began his direction of thinking with the discovery by scientists that there was an explosion of life at the beginning of the Cambrian era. "The Cambrian explosion... is the sudden acquisition, 543-538 million years ago, of hard external parts by all the animal phyla found today (except the sponges, comb jellies and cnidarians). It is the spontaneous transition from the prototype worm-shaped or soft-bodied form to complex characteristics within each phylum, and it happened in a blink of an eye on the geological time scale." Carefully and methodically, using examples from around the world but especially from the Burgess formations near the popular resort area at Banff in Canada, Parker builds his case that "Between 544 and 543 million years ago a revolution took place. During this one million year period, vision was born." In addition to the idea that the appearance of the eye triggered immense changes in life forms, he looks at the evolution of color and of the food web and predation. In addition, "another factor—active predation—can also be associated with the beginning of the Cambrian explosion." Aficionados of popular science with some background of training or reading will be intrigued by Parker's book. He acknowledges that he and other scientists (whose work he refers to liberally) do not have the final word, but they are following intriguing clues. In the school setting, a biology teacher could use this to increase interest in class. Parker works at being as nontechnical as possible while still getting his point across, but this book is pretty challenging for all but themost advanced teen readers. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2003, Perseus, Basic Books, 316p. illus. index., Ages 17 to adult.
—Edna Boardman
Library Journal
The Cambrian Explosion lasted 43 million years, a blink of an eye on the geological time scale, yet during that period all animal phyla evolved complex external forms. The cause of this unique event has baffled scientists since Darwin. Now, Parker, a world-renowned zoologist at Oxford University, has come up with the "Light Switch" theory: the Cambrian Explosion was caused by the evolution of sight. Using evidence from a variety of disciplines, including paleontology and modern physics, Parker provides an insightful glimpse into the mind of the scientist and demonstrates how scientists progress from an idea to a conclusion by considering, exploring, and refuting possible explanations. Unfortunately, this approach sometimes makes the narrative seem disjointed. There are some lovely drawings and diagrams, particularly of the fossils, which help illustrate Parker's theories; however, some require more explanation. In addition, some knowledge of biology and physics is needed in order to understand some of the more complex concepts. This thought-provoking work would be of most interest to academic libraries. (Index not seen.)-Catherine Jeanjean, Kansas State Univ. Lib., Manhattan Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Cambrian period saw the first proliferation of complex life on earth, and herewith is the fascinating argument that the development of vision triggered "evolution's big bang." Parker (Zoology/Oxford) takes a roundabout route to this destination, touching on a wide variety of disciplines. Cambrian fossils, such as those of the Burgess Shale, are the first to preserve solid body parts--the armor and claws of the alien-looking life forms that apparently sprang out of nowhere some 543 million years ago. Parker vividly describes his visits to several key Cambrian fossil sites, and the kind of information fossils can be made to yield. A long unanswered question is the coloration of extinct animals, a feature not readily determined from fossils. Comparison of two groups of marine crustaceans, one of which uses flashes of light as a mating signal, led to the discovery of minute body parts capable of functioning as diffraction gratings--a startling biological anticipation of high tech. Parker then undertook microscopic examination of Cambrian fossils, uncovering quite similar structures preserved in ancient beetles, sea creatures, and even some members of the Burgess fauna. This recovery of vanished colors from physical structures preserved in fossils is in itself a breakthrough, but Parker does not stop there. Color implies the presence of eyes to see it; a careful examination of the eyes of living creatures clarifies the question (which vexed even Darwin) of how eyes evolved. Trilobites, one of the characteristic Cambrian animals, appear to have been the first creatures capable of clear vision. Parker's conclusion, that the presence of eyes indicates the evolution of an active huntinglifestyle among Cambrian creatures, is both convincing and surprisingly fresh. Parker's writing skills are not quite up to the level of his science, but the subject matter is so compelling that few readers are likely to object. Cutting-edge science, highly recommended. Agent: Russ Galen/Scovil Chichak Galen
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780738206073
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/27/2003
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Parker is a Royal Society Research Fellow at Oxford University's Department of Zoology. He has been named by the London Times as one of the three most important young scientists in the world for his work in investigating and answering the great riddle of the Cambrian explosion. He lives in Oxfordshire, England.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface
1 Evolution's Big Bang 1
2 The Virtual Life of Fossils 48
3 The Infusion of Light 82
4 When Darkness Descends 117
5 Light, Time and Evolution 142
6 Colour in the Cambrian? 171
7 The Making of a Sense 187
8 The Killer Instinct 230
9 The Solution 261
10 End of Story? 291
Index 300
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