O Brave New World, That Had Such Creatures In It


By Richard Fortey

Knopf, 416 pp., $30

In "Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth," Richard Fortey finds beauty in the fossils that have archived Earth's history.

Fortey, a senior scientist at the Natural History Museum in London, takes readers on a journey that begins with the primeval soup that gave rise to the first living cells and ends with the sharp-toothed, crawling animals that evolved into modern human beings.

The book's real strength is its depiction of long-ago places, exotic creatures, and unusual plants. Fortey leads readers through the progression of life recorded by impressions and skeletal remains.

Three-and-a-half billion years ago, there was little life on Earth, except blue-green algae covering rocks. These bacteria exhaled oxygen, transforming the planet's harsh atmosphere into an environment capable of sustaining more complex life.

Fortey gives a vivid image of Pangaea, the large land mass that eventually divided and drifted apart, producing the seven continents we know today. "There were reptilian herbivores that moved in herds; there were small, lizard-like creatures that are very likely to have been insectivores," Fortey writes. "There remains something romantic in the idea of an ancient land where all was one: a continent where unity reigned." Indeed, Fortey's prose makes the reader feel sentimental about that lost continent.

Fortey peppers his version of the earth's biography with anecdotes about various scientists, key discoveries, and controversies that have arisen in the course of defining paleontological history. The stories help readers understand the thinking and logic behind scientific progress.

Pointing out that not all science is rational, he writes about a mollusk specialist who "waited years for a new species of the genus Abra to turn up so that he could propose the species name cadabra."

To illustrate the way scientists sometimes resist new ideas, Fortey relates a dispute over cladistics, a method of organizing evolutionary relationships among organisms.

Outraged over its use at the Natural History Museum, Beverley Halstead, a professor at the University of Reading, England, gave an interview that encouraged the headline, "Marxists Take Over at the Natural History Museum." Scientists now widely accept cladistics, demonstrating that science, too, evolves.

When Fortey comes to the dinosaurs, he instills the excitement of discovery even in this familiar subject. He recounts, for instance, that scientists once thought these reptiles dragged their tails on the ground, but more research revealed that dinosaurs probably spent most of their time upright and used their tails for counterbalance. Museums altered exhibits.

The bonus, Fortey says, was that patrons of the Museum of Natural History could no longer steal tailbones lying close to the ground.

Unfortunately, Fortey sometimes affects a pompous attitude. He made his first fossil-hunting expedition to Spitsbergen with another student from the University of Cambridge.

When the two received their year-end exam results on that remote island in the Arctic, his companion's low marks assured Fortey the leadership position.

The description of his triumph and his companion's defeat is unnecessary and gratuitous. Fortey's success as a scientist in natural history is apparent. His need to point out others' failures is not.

Fortey's descriptions of long-ago time periods remind us that the world is unstable. Evolutionary, geological, and climatic changes have dramatically altered the geography and make-up of life on Earth.

* Judy Silber is a freelance science writer based in Boston.

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