Richard Fortey


An Unauthorised Biography

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

This book surveys the whole course of life on this planet, from the earliest time to the beginning of history. It is thus in one sense an impossibly ambitious undertaking, for how can you compress nearly four billion years of evolution into less than 400 pages? Inevitably, Fortey has to be highly selective in the story he tells, but he succeeds brilliantly in making the narrative vivid and compelling. This is because the book is very far from being a dry recitation of facts. Instead, we are given atmospheric evocations of vanished worlds that bring them convincingly to life. We also get a number of asides about the nature of science and the motives that lead people to practise it; these are fascinating.

Most popular books about how life evolved tend to skip rather quickly over the first three billion years or so, the authors seeming to be eager to get to the dinosaurs. Fortey, in contrast, has allocated space to the various eras in a proportion that roughly reflects their actual duration. Thus, the early part of the book dwells at some length on what we know about Precambrian life, which was for a long time confined to single cells; not the most exciting of themes, one might think, but Fortey manages to make it interesting. But eventually multicellular organisms did appear, and here we encounter the strange Ediacara fauna. We also find the beginning of land plants, an event to which Fortey gives its due importance, for animals could not exist on land without plants. Yet another theme is the great continental shifts which underlay all this; these shifts naturally had a profound effect on the way life developed, and the palaeontological evidence in turn has helped us to understand how the shifts occurred.

Another great threshold in the development of life occurred in the Cambrian, which marked the development of something like a modern marine ecology, with hunters and hunted. This can actually be seen happening: there is even a fossil track of a trilobite descending on a worm trail and, presumably, eating the worm, since its track comes to an end. Fortey has a wonderful lyrical description of what it might have been like to stand on a Cambrian shore in the evening, watching the creatures as they move about at his feet. Another of his set pieces evokes the experience of standing in the silence of a Carboniferous forest, populated by nightmarish creatures such as giant scorpions.

Life has been punctuated by great extinctions. The best known of these, though not the biggest, is the one that is thought to have killed off the dinosaurs and is widely though not universally attributed to the impact of a large meteorite. Fortey provides a good and entertaining account of the controversy that the announcement of the bolide theory produced, and he is interesting on the psychological reasons that led some people to reject it. He himself is largely convinced, although he does point out certain puzzling features that are hard to explain. For example, most insect groups survived, but how could they do so if the flowering plants on which they depended failed to grow in the immediate aftermath of the impact? Rather surprisingly, he does not mention the rival or perhaps complementary theory that the dinosaurs were already becoming extinct as the result of large-scale volcanic activity in the Deccan Traps in India.

This is a book about science, but Fortey never forgets that science is a human activity. Some of the characters he encounters are strikingly eccentric. The favourite undoubtedly has to be Rousseau H. Flower, who dressed in Wild West clothes and used to bullwhip outcrops that failed to yield an adequate amount of fossils. He also tried to shoot them with a six-shooter, but as he was extremely short-sighted this produced terror in the bystanders. He smoked almost continually, even in the shower, yet in spite of all this he was a masterly cello player. Some palaeontologists are remarkable in other ways, without being eccentric. Professor G.J. Vermeij is totally blind, yet is an authority on prehistoric shells, which he recognizes by touch.

Fortey has written a delightful book that would be especially suitable to give to someone with a background in literature or the arts but with little knowledge of science and evolution. If such a reader wanted to pursue the subject further, however, he or she might require more guidance than is provided by the rather brief list of further reading. This could have been fuller and might have included notes to give an indication of the scope of the books mentioned.

%T Life
%S An Unauthorised Biography
%A Fortey, Richard
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 1997
%G ISBN 000-255560-3
%P v + 399p
%O Illustrated
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