Jul 192011

I purchased several books while I was at TAM 9 in Las Vegas, one of which was Daniel Loxton’s recent book Evolution. Ostensibly written for kids, it’s a winner both for its accessible scientific content and its artistic merit. I finished reading the book thinking how much anguish I could have avoided if I were exposed to a book like this when I was about 15!

The scientific concepts are explained simply and fundamentally. On page 17 the process of natural selection is broken down into just three simple steps. Because the fundamental principals are so powerful and encompassing the explanatory power is enormous. Loxton uses straight exposition as well as question and answer to explain the phenomena that result from the simple principles of natural selection. Much to the book’s credit, a number of these questions directly address classic creationist arguments against evolution. Loxton devotes two pages to the question “how could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?” I found this particularly moving, as I had been exposed to creationist literature as a child that raised this same point. Oh, to have had this book as a youth! Not content to simply give an abstract rebuttal, Loxton provides two examples of creatures that have functional “eyes” with lower structural complexity than human eyes. One is the chambered nautilus, which I was not familiar with even as scientifically literate adult.

I had the benefit of speaking to Daniel at the meeting after I had read his book. Indeed, he told me that he often writes for kids in such a way as to provide resources that he wished he had as a youth. I suspect that many young people who read this book will have been exposed to creationist concepts, so it’s entirely appropriate that the perennial arguments are addressed.

This book is also an artistic triumph. There are multiple forms of illustration, including landscape photography, conventional illustration, digital illustration, and photographed sculptures. Clearly an illustrated book on evolution should include depictions of extinct species, often extinct for millions of years. In most cases Loxton created a digital illustration and composited it into a photographed background. This techniques has multiple risks, all of which Loxton has overcome. First off, the animals must be believable, both in gross morphology and surface texture. On both counts the illustrations work. The fine skin detail on the stubby-legged creatures on page 31 is stunning. Even the convoluted textures on the foreground plants are outstanding. I spoke to Daniel about this specific issue and indeed he devoted a great deal of effort into producing believable textures.

Most of the digitally created animals are composited into landscape photographs. Artistically this runs the risk of looking like a typical Hollywood CGI action movie. To look realistic, a composited scene must have a single focal plane, as that matches how the human eye works. All too often in shoddy CGI images both the foreground image and the background plane are in perfect focus. Thankfully Loxton chose to have his foreground animals in focus and his backgrounds correctly out of focus. His composited images also exhibit correct aerial perspective with regards to luminosity and detail.

The conventional illustrations are obviously quicker studies. Loxton has a unique drawing style in which his lines are particularly bold. Despite this his illustrations are able to convey a surprising depth of subtlety, as in his illustration of a woman on page 44. Though it’s a small drawing, there is a hint of epicanthic folds in eyes of the figure. At points, though, the luck runs out, as on page 15 where the outlines of a boy’s hands are so thick it’s slightly distracting.

Not content with a two dimensional triumph, Loxton exhibits his skill as a sculptor on page 32. A hominid’s head is shown with strong lateral lighting. Loxton used a Crayola sculpting compound for a resounding success. There is some digital post processing occurring in this image, and if I recall correctly the eyes were digitally composited in. Once again, Loxton’s attention to surface detail is seen in the bust, as well as his own self confidence in his creation to allow it to be seen in a strongly lit close up.

All in all, this book is a winner. It explains a powerful scientific theory in elegantly simple ways. It touches on creationist arguments without being contentious. The illustrations are superbly integrated with the text, and are an artistic triumph. This book needs to be in every school library.

Update: Some time after this review was written, Loxton’s book generated some controversy but went on to win a literary award.

 Posted by on 07/19/2011 Science

  2 Responses to “Daniel Loxton’s Evolution”

  1. Thanks for the heads up on Daniel Loxton’s Evolution book. Your review was excellent, appreciate especially your opinion on the illustrations. Will be buying this book asap.

  2. Great review, hope to find a copy in Dutch:)

    Sound like a great book to help dad tell his kids about our origins.

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