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.
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.
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.
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.