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Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution

The Story Behind the Book

My understanding of evolution began in high school biology (thank you, Mr. Jenkins!), and grew in college and for decades afterwards. Reading the journal Science and many other sources, I was amazed at the continuing flow of new discoveries about evolution.

For this book I set out to explain evolution as clearly and simply as possible. As usual, I learned a lot while researching the book. As usual, I sought the help of an expert to check all of my writing. As usual, the expert helped correct some mistakes. In this case, Dr. Jerry Coyne brought an extraordinary depth of knowledge to the job, and I made quite a few changes, especially about genetics. He liked the results, and wrote in the book's foreword, "In your hands is the book I wish I had read when I was your age."

On page 42 I paid special attention to one word: theory. I wonder: is there any other English word that has such a huge difference in meaning, between everyday use and use by experts? Most people think of a theory as an idea, a hunch, a rough guess. To scientists a theory is a well-understood set of ideas, supported by huge amounts of evidence. That's true of the germ theory, theory of gravity, theory of evolution, and others. People who understand science never say that evolution is "just" a theory because a scientific theory is always backed by so much trustworthy evidence.

Billions of Years, Amazing Changes gave me a rare opportunity--a chance to use some of my own photographs as illustrations. (I used to be a very active nature photographer. Some of my books, back in the 1980s and 1990s, were mostly illustrated with my photos.) My fourteen photos in this book range from nearby (a katydid in the vegetable garden) to very faraway (gannets in New Zealand). They include fossils photographed in museums, and subjects (cactus, volcanic rocks, Grand Canyon) taken on vacations. One image is remarkable: it shows my daughter Heidi, as a young girl, kneeling by some fossil dinosaur tracks. Another view of Heidi, taken on the same day in the 1960s, appeared in my very first book, Dinosaurs and Their World (1968). Old photos can come in handy!