A lovingly crafted biography, of sorts, of bone.
With any luck, we’ll never see nor have to think very much about our own bones. Most of us will live the vast majority of our lives only vaguely aware of the collagen and hydroxyapatite-constructed structures holding us upright and keeping our bodies from collapsing in on themselves, becoming little more than gelatinous blobs of skin. And if we’re being completely honest, the thought of our own bones—let alone everything else lying just below the skin—is better left (for the squeamish, this reviewer included) out of sight, out of mind. But thankfully there are those individuals who feel no sense of ickiness with regard to our internal makeup and instead find it beyond fascinating; so much so that they’re willing to devote their lives to the study of bones either within a contemporary or historical context. Brian Switek’s Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone takes this fascination with all things osteological to the extreme, resulting in a lovingly crafted biography, of sorts, of bone.
As with any good biography, regardless of subject matter, Switek takes the reader back to a time before the inception of the subject. In this case, it’s more than 525 million years ago, back to a time before anything resembling life as we know or understand it existed on Earth. From here, he begins following the evolutionary chain of bone as we today recognize it, beginning with the inch-and-a-half long Pikaia gracilens. This tiny creature—and extremely distant relative—first made its prehistoric presence known to paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott within what has come to be called the Burgess Shale, a site in British Columbia that has provided a wealth of information on the Cambrian age (roughly 540 to 490 million years ago). It’s an interesting and logical place to start and, thanks to Switek’s casual wit, makes for far more interesting reading than anything that distant and niche has a right to be.
This latter quality is Switek’s strong suit throughout, and it’s what helps elevate Skeleton Keys from being a non-academic but still very much inside-baseball look at both the history of paleontology and the evolution of our skeletal structure. As he rolls through the eons, Switek manages to retain the reader’s interest with small asides and subtle wordplay that helps prevent the mind from otherwise wandering as far from the Latin classifications and mind-boggling dates (it’s millions of years before the dinosaurs even make an appearance, a time period itself so far removed from our own as to seem fantastical). In this, Skeleton Keys seeks to finely toe the line between overly informative and accessible within a pop-science framework.
And, thankfully, Switek largely succeeds, making for an engrossing study of a niche subject while also placing it within a broader cultural, historical and scientific context that manages to be both engaging and enlightening. For instance, his exploration of the rivalry between paleontological all-stars and arch nemeses Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope proves particularly riveting nearly a century and a half after the fact. Each engaging in a game of one-upmanship that included diverting one another’s finds to their respective museums, buying their own scientific publications to publish their respective finds at an absurd pace and, ultimately, ending in Cope leaving his skeletal remains to the museum he helped establish. Not surprisingly, given the amount of personal obsession one must have in order to devote their life’s study to bones, Cope is not the only paleontologist mentioned in Skeleton Keys to leave his bones to science in an attempt to have his legacy carry on well beyond his time.
By the time he gets to modern man and our 206 bones (give or take, depending on what you’ve had replaced, broken or genetically been granted extra), he’s provided such an in-depth look at the subject at hand that readers will be forever hard-pressed to not think of their own skeletal structure as they go about their day-to-day. Whether or not this is a good thing will depend on your tolerance level for all things squeamish, but regardless, Skeleton Keys offers a fascinating look at a subject hidden in plain sight.