Richard Fortey has written an elegant and informative biography of life on earth. But his preference for the rock over the intriguing idea lets him downby Oliver Morton / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
In 1988, the Royal Society held a meeting on geology and evolution at Carlton House Terrace. Many eminent British palaeontologists turned up; so did a small number of illustrious Americans, only to be fallen upon, mocked and debagged in an academic catfight. The basis for the unpleasantness was a feeling that the Americans were engaged in a sort of theoretical imperialism, importing suspect ideas from other disciplines and not paying enough respect to the encrusted, perhaps even procrustean, traditions beloved of the Brits. Hence, one of the British speakers pointed to a slide of a large outcrop and said: “This, I should explain for the benefit of our American colleagues, is a rock.”
Had Richard Fortey been at that meeting-and it would have been a normal enough gathering for him to attend, as a senior palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum-I suspect that he would have been embarrassed by the tone some of his colleagues took. He might well, as others did, have apologised to the targets of the attacks, some of whose insights, his book makes clear, he accepts. But if the split reflected a real national difference in styles, then on the basis of this book Fortey comes down on the British side of the divide. Given the choice between a revealing rock and an intriguing idea, he will take the rock.
This is a great strength, because rocks are the stuff of the history of life. Where other biographers have diaries and letters, a biography of life on earth has only the rocks to go on. So it pays to have a deep regard for them. Fortey’s love of the fossils that are his only access to the past is deep; his elegant writing communicates this feeling, especially when he writes of his own beloved trilobites.
The rocks that form the landscapes we see around us today also record the landscapes of years gone by. Understanding the way in which millions of years are folded up within these rocks underlies the palaeontological reconstruction of environments. It is not just a skill; it can also be a profoundly moving experience. To look at a rock and see in it the intersection of a past world with the present one is a profound human triumph over time, a double vision that brings the vast scale of planetary processes into the realm of human experience.
Fortey evokes some of…