Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

From fossils to the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Starting roughly 100 million years ago, Flannery sets out to tell the story of Europe – how it formed, the species that have lived, survived or become extinct in it, the rise of humanity, and the possible future impacts of our current galloping climate change. Along the way, he tells us of the many men and women who have contributed to uncovering this history or who have in some way affected it.

There’s so much in this fascinating book that it’s hard to know how to summarise it in a few hundred words. It gives a panoramic view, bringing together and linking all the bits of natural history that are often covered separately, such as the formation of the continent, or current rewilding projects, or the origins of humanity. It’s surprisingly compact, considering its huge scope, and yet never feels superficial or rushed. And Flannery is a master of the art of converting scientific information into language easily understandable by the non-scientist.

Flannery starts by explaining how the landmass formed and changed over time and how this impacted on the development and spread of species, or conversely on their isolation to single geographic areas. He explains the various climate changes over the aeons – why they happened and how they affected both environment and fauna. He describes the various land corridors that have existed at points between what are now separate continents, and the flow of species along these. I was reading a review copy without maps, but it indicated that maps will be available in the final version – I didn’t find the lack of them seriously affected my understanding of what he was describing, but they would undoubtedly be an enhancement.

Cretaceous Europe

Personally I’m very human-centric, so I found the sections where he discussed the early hominids, the Neanderthals and the early humans particularly interesting. Flannery seems to have a good deal of admiration for the Neanderthals, seeing them not in any way as a lower form of species to humanity. In fact, he often gives the impression that in some ways he thinks they were superior in terms of intelligence and innovation, and that humanity’s main advantage, and the reason why we survived and they didn’t, is that humans can exist on foods other than meat, which enabled us to adapt better to changing environments. There’s a fascinating chapter on hybridisation between pale-skinned European Neanderthals and the early black African humans to create the first European humans. He doesn’t specifically say so, but I got the distinct feeling that he thinks the infusion of Neanderthal DNA was advantageous to the humans. Certainly he suspects that female Neanderthal mothers may have passed tips to their hybrid offspring on how to survive in the cold European climate, such as cave-dwelling. Apparently indigenous Europeans (and their descendants throughout the diaspora) still have a small but significant percentage of Neanderthal DNA.

Neanderthal Man, though I’m sure I’ve
met him up the dancin’…

Once into the human phase of history, he shows how man began to impact on the environment and on other species, hunting some to extinction, destroying the habitats of some through farming, and domesticating some as farm animals or working animals. He talks of the European reliance on the cow as a source of food, and how that advantaged those with high lactose tolerance. He discusses the domestication of dogs, horses, cats, and explains how repeated selection and breeding of those with the most suitable temperaments for living domestically eventually changed them fundamentally from their wilder forebears. And he shows how human activities led to the introduction of species from (and to) other regions of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, and often with unforeseen effects on indigenous species.

As well as being a naturalist, Flannery is a renowned name in the field of climate change, so his final section looks to a future where change is happening so fast some species are unlikely to be able to adapt quickly enough to survive without human intervention. However, it’s not all bleak – the warming of Europe allows scope for reintroduction of species who emigrated during the ice ages, and Flannery sees this as a possible means of survival for some of the species who will be under threat in warmer parts of the world. He makes a strong case for Europe reintroducing some of the large species from Africa, including the predators, arguing that it’s unfair for Europeans to expect a turbulent, growing Africa to have to bear all the risks and costs of preserving these species if we are all to enjoy the benefits of their survival. He’s less clear about his support for the reintroduction of extinct species, possible now with genetic science, but suggests that society should form a view on this (presumably, though he doesn’t say so, before the mad scientists make the decisions for us). Thankfully, he draws the line at the idea of reintroducing the Neanderthal, although the survival of Neanderthal DNA makes this possible, concluding that the genetic manipulation of humans is immoral. I can only hope the wider scientific community agrees with him on that one.

Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn’t get to express an opinion…

As always with these science-based books, I feel I’ve give only a superficial flavour of this one, concentrating on the bits that most interested me. But I found the whole thing fascinating, bringing together lots of disparate bits of things I’ve read about over the years into one coherent whole. Flannery writes clearly and entertainingly, including lots of anecdotes about the scientists and naturalists who’ve contributed to the sum of knowledge over the centuries, which helps to break up the more sciency stuff. And he’s meticulous about differentiating things that are known from those that are theorised but not yet proven, and from his own occasional speculations. An excellent read, informative and enjoyable – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.

PS Although obviously Europe is the best continent in the world, for those of you from inferior other continents, Flannery has previously written similar books on the natural and human histories of Australasia and North America.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

51 thoughts on “Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

  1. Oh this sounds fabulous. I read an earlier book by him many years ago (I think you did too?). I should have requested this. So much of what you say had me thinking, ‘ooh, INTERESTING ‘ I might have to part with cash….But console myself with the lovely lovely maps….

    • I did – the Atmosphere of Hope, about climate change, when he was really grumpy at govenrments doing nothing! He was much less grumpy in this one and consequently it was even more enjoyable – I do think you’d like it. I’m not sure if there might be illustrations too in the real book – it felt as if there was plenty of scope for them, though he describes things so well they weren’t really necessary. I might be forced to read his books about Aus and the US…

  2. This books sounds very fascinating, thanks for the review! This is definitely something I will want to pick up to read. I notice the author chooses to focus on “Europe”. I imagine that far back in time it is hard to clearly separate it from other land masses and think it is correct to think about it as a peninsula of Asia, or something.

  3. I often glance at these sorts of discussions in a semi-interested way when I stumble over them, particularly the reintroduction of species into their previous ranges or via genetic technology, but this is the first time I have heard the ideas of African predators in Europe and bringing back Neanderthal man voiced out loud. Even if Flannery rejects them, now they are out of the genie bottle of my imagination.

    • There are a lot of re-wilding projects going on in Europe at the moment, bringing back wolves and bears and so on. Surprisingly considering how small Europe is, the density of the cities means there are huge areas that almost entirely unpopulated. So it does seem feasible to me that we could cope with elephants and even lions at least as well as Africa, now that the human population there is exploding too. We’re currently considering reintroducing wolves in the Scottish Highlands to help control the red deer population. Resurrection of extinct species is a much more dubious prospect, I feel – I read a fascinating book about all the ethical questions around it a few years back – Resurrection Science by MR O’Connor.

  4. This sounds absolutely fascinating, FictionFan. It takes a lot of talent to cover such an expansive set of topics without either going on too long or being too superficial. It also takes talent to write a book that includes a lot of science for the non-scientist. I’m especially interested in the way he ties the various themes he discusses together. That takes skill, too.

    • I loved that it covered so much and brought it all together. I have a tendency to read single subject books, but then my mind doesn’t tie them together, so I never know what order things happened in. So this was perfect for me – I’d really like to read his other books about North America and Australia sometime to see what happened differently…

  5. Great review! Your captions are hilarious. But I’m a little ignorant about one phrase: “I’m sure I’ve
    met him up the dancin’” Um what does this mean? 😳

  6. It’s incredible! I read a fictionalised version of the human aspect which I thoroughly enjoyed called The Replacement Chronicles by Harper Swan. That also delves into the life style of Neanderthals and early humans.

    • Oh, that sounds interesting – I must look out for it! I found this whole book interesting, but the bit about the Neanderthals and the early humans was definitely my favourite part. When I was a kid, Neanderthals were considered kinda sub-human, so it was intriguing to see how scientists have determined that they were at least the equal of humans in terms of intelligence and early civilisation and so on…

  7. I can NOT fathom tackling such a massive writing project!! Such an immense land mass and time-spread would make me feel I’m writing a thesis over and over again! It’s an interesting idea, though, and I’m glad you found it enjoyable. Those are some serious tusks on that wooly mammoth, aren’t they?!?

    • I know – a mammoth task! (See what I did there? 😉 ) But he’s spent his whole life as a naturalist and scientist so I guess he already was on top of all the research and stuff. I love that he can take all that and make it into something readable for the laywoman! Yep! Not sure I want them to reintroduce the mammoth in my vicinity… !!

    • Aw, thank you! 😀 Hahaha – my problem is that I’ve seen plenty of men (and women!) who could easily pass as Neanderthal… I’m thinking some of us have more of the DNA than others… 😉

    • Ha! That sounds almost masochistic! 😉 My memory’s shocking, but I think he did give a brief run through of the billions of years before that, but he kinda started for real as the dinosaurs were ending and “modern” flora and fauna were beginning…

      • Well, I’m mostly interested in Scandinavias history and most of the bedrock here is much older than 100 million years so the book would have to go back further to properly capture it. Still sounds interesting though!

        • The book’s really focused more on the flora and fauna than on the geology, although he does sketch the development of the landmass, but mainly to illustrate where species developed and spread. It is very interesting though! If you decide to go for it, I hope you enjoy it. 😀

  8. Whoa this sounds like a huge book. I’ve never actually read anything by Flannery but I’ve definitely heard (good) things about him. Perhaps I should give this book to my father-in-law, he’s a bit of a climate change denier 🙂

  9. Glad you enjoyed this.
    Re Atmosphere of Hope, I wonder why the climate-change deniers can’t work out another reason why our summers in Australia are getting hotter and hotter.
    Despite this, I always felt sorry for people from continents other than mine!

  10. Fascinating! I see that the library has a waitlist for Europe and has The Future Eaters (on Australasia) on order – so, of course I put a hold on them both. I’d like to read more about when NZ was once part of a continent; and I can’t not learn more about my Neanderthal heritage 😋 Did you know that ancestry DNA testing companies give an estimate of how much Neanderthal heritage individuals carry (less than 4%)?

    • I’d love to read the Australasian one too sometime. I got the impression, maybe wrongly, that Europe and North America were linked more recently so have quite a lot of similarity in how they developed, but the species in Australia and NZ seem so different, and the human evolution would have been different too, I assume. Haha – I’d be frightened to do a test in case my percentage was abnormally high! I’m pretty sure some Glaswegians are at least 98% Neanderthal… 😉

  11. This sounds like a good fit for me. I love science-y books like this that teach you lots of things that aren’t too hard to understand. I wish I had time to read more of them.
    The genetics and cloning stuff is pretty crazy. I really hope they keep their experimenting to a minimum!

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