September 9, 2011 9:54 pm

Survivors

Paleontologist Richard Fortey’s fascinating stories of enduring species

This is real history: not just people, ideas, wars and civilisations, but the long reach of life itself for billions of years.

The particular survivors identified in this book, ranging from horseshoe crabs to ginkgo trees, have kept most of their characteristics from ancient epochs; and even those that, like ourselves, are very new in their present form, are compositions of earlier organisms. As the paleontologist Richard Fortey writes: “We are all pond slime. Every cell in our body acknowledges a deep history.” Indeed, we all contain 10 times more bacterial than body cells.

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First, a word or two about the background. A critical point in the history of life was the Cambrian period beginning some 540m years ago. Long before that came the oxygenation of the atmosphere by a species of bacteria and the development of three main varieties of cells, of which we are one.

Natural selection is an amazing process. As Charles Darwin said: “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”.

No one is more aware of this than Fortey. He makes an intriguing selection of species: stromatolites (or layered combinations of blue-green algae) from Australia, velvet worms from China and New Zealand, lampreys from Lithuania, leatherback turtles from Trinidad, coelacanths from the Indian Ocean, tuatara reptiles from New Zealand, dawn redwood and ginkgo trees from China, ostriches from Africa – the list is long.

In each case he well shows the circumstances in which such species have survived and why they were able to do so, providing colourful descriptions of their current surroundings and ways of life. He also laments such recent extinctions as the dodo from Mauritius caused by human activity.

If there are lessons to be learnt from this somewhat discursive but always scholarly work, it is that we should reckon more openly and honestly with what our own animal species is doing to the surface of the Earth, its land, its seas and its atmosphere. “The extinction event that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species,” writes Fortey. “We have not nibbled the face of the Earth to a desert yet but, if our human numbers go on growing, it looks like a plausible end. Some time soon, it has got to stop. We can do something about it. After all, we are not cockroaches.” I should add that cockroaches are survivors that have been going for more than 250m years.

Put differently, so long as people believe that the world and its resources, organic and inorganic, were somehow made for their indefinite exploitation and delectation, current rates of damage to the environment will probably continue. We have a dangerous lack of respect for the natural world. In the long term we do not know if we shall be among the survivors, or what future creatures might think were they to come across our traces in geological time.

Survivors contains a lot of personal anecdote and sometimes reads more like notes for a book than the book itself. This certainly gives immediacy to the narrative but those who make their way through its long paragraphs may sometimes be tempted to skip. They would be unwise to do so. Fortey tells a series of fascinating stories that serve to bring alive what is for most of us an unfamiliar past. Under his tutelage fossils of all kinds – survivors or not – seem to come alive.

His new book adds to his previous work on the subject, in particular The Earth: An Intimate History, and sets out a clear and important message. By looking at those who survived in the past, let us make sure that we join the survivors in the future.

Sir Crispin Tickell is a fellow of the Oxford Martin School and a member of its advisory council

Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind, by Richard Fortey, Harper Press, RRP£25, 400 pages

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