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 this wonder as he takes fossils from present landscapes and puts them in their past places. At the same time, he adds an extra dimension to his own book. Like most geologists, he is widely travelled; the movement of tectonic plates has spread the rocks of the Palaeozoic period-his principle field of study-all over the world. The varied landscapes he has direct experience of, from Spitsbergen to Oman, set off his introductions to the landscapes of the past. He whisks us through deserts to see the scars of glaciation, takes us along freezing shores to reveal sunlit reefs. And his clear practical experience of the range of landscapes on offer today lends depth and authority to his recreations of landscapes past, such as the swamps of the Carboniferous.
This zigzagging across the face of today’s globe provides a counterpoint to the stately chronological progress of his main narrative. After a brief memoir of an undergraduate summer spent on arctic fieldwork, an elegantly multifunctional passage that acts as an introduction to the author and his themes as well as to the ideas, practises and professional structures of geology, he takes the story step by step from the creation of the earth to the evolution of man. At each stage he introduces the dominant life forms in the fossil record, explains how they came to be and how they fit together into ecosystems. One of his themes-a common one in palaeontology-is the constancy of those ecological roles; species may come and go, but niches remain. Reefs may be built by one industrious little thing in one era and another in the next, but a reef is still a reef. To the extent that his book is, as it claims, a biography, ecological arrangements play the role of the subject’s underlying character, emerging at the end of infancy to remain constant under changing circumstances for the rest of the tale.
Returning to the title, though, brings us to the book’s weakness. While the subject of Life: An Unauthorised Biography is indeed life, and the chronological structure supports the biographical conceit, the text does almost nothing to justify the titillating promise implicit in “unauthorised.” Far from it; this is the straight word, the consensus of the men of rock. And this is where Fortey’s presumed preference for the rock over the notion, for the evidence over the argument, lets him down. If he has such a preference, it has probably played an extensive part in his professional success; it is a proper preference for a scientist. But for a biographer, especially an unauthorised one, it is something of a problem. It leads him to leave out of the book an awful lot of the speculative ideas currently revolving around the history he records. Now many of these ideas may be silly, or faddish, or contradictory, or plain wrong-but that is what makes an unauthorised biography juicy.
To take some examples: there is little consideration given to the question of any life other than that on earth. True, there is no evidence for such life except a much disputed meteorite, mentioned in a passing footnote. But the discussion of its possibility is at least semi-respectable science. The question of whether life on earth is unique, a single example of a commonplace, or actually related in some way to life elsewhere, would seem to me something worth a biographer’s speculation-all the more so because such a discussion would require a clearer analysis of what, exactly, life is.
As far as Fortey is concerned, it seems that life is basically what the DNA-carrying bits of the earth have got up to over the past 4,000m years, and heaven knows that is a big enough topic for a book. But if that definition is useful, it hardly explains what life is, any more than Fortey’s account of the origins of life does. His account is basically a listing of the availability of the physical ingredients of life; it says little about what it is that makes an animate arrangement of these ingredients different from an inanimate one.
To the extent that anyone can answer such a question without recourse to God, such answers tend to draw on information theory or complexity theory to express the idea that life is a process of some sort and then try to define what sort. Such answers range from the highly formal to the blatantly handwaving. Some go beyond theory to furnish examples, trying to create “artificial life” in the form of self-reproducing, evolving computer programmes and then asking what essential properties they share with real life. Fortey may consider this ferment voguish and confusing; he may be right to ignore it; but he really offers us nothing in its place.
Or take Gaia. Fortey mentions, in passing, James Lovelock’s hypothesis that the living and non-living parts of the earth act as a set of self-regulating systems in such a way as to ensure some forms of environmental constancy. Even when put in this dry manner, rather than in terms of the earth itself being alive, it is a striking hypothesis, one that would seem to demand consideration in a biography of life on earth. Fortey notes the close coupling between life and its environments, sometimes with intriguing examples, such as the possible significance of a large number of lakes in the Devonian period. However, he makes only one passing reference to Gaia, assuming that his readers know what he is referring to, but also assuming, apparently, that they do not want him to talk about it. So he neither examines the ideas nor trashes them as not worth examining. He makes no mention of one of the driving factors behind Gaian explanations-the fact that the sun was 25 per cent or so dimmer when the earth was young than it is now, yet the earth has much the same average temperature now as it did then. He does not discuss the great excursion from that average when the world may have been both a cause and a consequence of biological changes.
There are other debates unjoined. Perhaps the most surprising is that over “punctuated equilibria”-the theory put forward by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge in the 1970s to explain why the fossil record contains species that seem to go on unchanged for millions of years and then suddenly change into something else. This theory held that the fossil record looked like that because that was in fact the way life worked; it evolved in spurts. Its proponents seemed to see this view as a significant adjunct to, or partial replacement for, the slow gradualism of natural selection. Its opponents saw it as an artefact of the evidence or something that they had known about all along and could deal with in their old paradigm. It all became heated, if not enlightening.
One of the book’s strengths is the way that it discusses palaeontology’s recent spats over such things as the cladistic approach to taxonomy (a hot issue and a fascinating one, unlikely though that sounds), the true significance of the Burgess Shale and the role of cosmic impacts in mass extinctions. Fortey neatly shows how such debates mix up facts, opinions, personalities and prejudice; he is also happy to provide his own views, coming down in a measured way for reasonably rigorous cladistics and an impact killing the dinosaurs, against an over-interpretation of the Burgess Shale. I looked to him for the same measured guidance on punctuated equilibrium, and did not get it. Maybe that is because, in the end, Fortey is not that interested in evolution.
It feels a little cheap to say that a man who has produced an excellently written and thoroughly informative book on a huge subject should have cast his nets wider still. It is entirely reasonable for Fortey to have stuck broadly to the established facts and the fascinating rocks themselves, producing a book that will stand for some time, perhaps lasting all the longer for having little truck with the fads of the moment. But I cannot help feeling that, if he had allowed ideas more play-both good ones and bad ones-the reader might have come away with a greater sense of what life is outside the rocks, a sense that might bring to the cosmic sweep of the story a little of the satisfaction, intimacy and revelation that biography aspires to. Life: an unauthorised biography. A natural history of the first 4,000,000,000 years of life on earth
HarperCollins 1997, ?20