Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.
Shelter. Yield. Dispose.
These three tasks, so says nature writer Robert Macfarlane, signify our relationship with the world beneath our feet, both across time and across cultures. Underland is his lyrical exploration of underground spaces where people have sought shelter from warfare or hidden valuable treasures, are extracting minerals in mines or knowledge in research facilities, or are looking to dispose of waste. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, the other being Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet which I will be reviewing next. But first, Underland.
Like so many teenagers, I wanted to become a palaeontologist. However, there was no degree programme in palaeontology in the Netherlands back then (I doubt there is one nowadays), so I was advised that one option to prepare myself was to do a Master’s in biology or geology. I choose the former and never looked back, but remained fascinated with the latter. Now, twenty years later, my job exposes me to many geology textbooks and especially Cambridge University Press has a wonderful output of advanced-level books that I really want to read. But when I reviewed Earth History and Palaeogeography some time ago, I realised I was out of my depth and struggled with the jargon. Is it ever too late to start over and make an entry into a new field? I decided to shell out and invest in a textbook to find out.
As one of several intellectuals who wrote about evolution before Darwin, time has not been kind to the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Reviled during his lifetime by the influential Cuvier, after his death he became best remembered, and ultimately ridiculed, for the idea that characters acquired during an organism’s lifetime are passed on to its offspring. With the rise of the modern field of epigenetics, some of his ideas are making a comeback, albeit modified and adapted for the 21st Century. Palaeontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward would even like to go so far as to restore some honour to his name and consider epigenetics a neo-Lamarckian process.
At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instill a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:
“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.
And with that, she had me hooked.
What has plate tectonics ever done for us? Not having studied geology, I have a basic understanding of the movement of earth’s continents, but this book made me appreciate just how much of current geology it underpins. Marine geophysicist Roy Livermore, who retired from the British Antarctic Survey in 2006 after a 20-year career, convincingly shows here that the discovery and acceptance of plate tectonics was a turning point in geology, on par with Darwin’s formulation of evolution by natural selection. To paraphrase evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: nothing in geology makes sense except in the light of plate tectonics.
Before plate tectonics became an accepted idea in geology, Lyell’s doctrine of uniformitarianism still ruled supreme (see my review of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century for a short introduction). A corollary was that the continents supposedly had always been where they are now. One observation scholars had to explain away was that the same fossils occur on both sides of the various oceans. Looking at maps, some people noticed the thin strip of land connecting North and South America and concluded that land bridges must have formed and sunk beneath the waves at just the right times in history to enable migrations (see Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth for more details). As explained in The Tectonic Plates are Moving!, we know better nowadays. Nevertheless, the concept of land bridges is still alive and well today, and palaeobotanist Alan Graham here introduces five of them, exploring their effects on biogeography, climate, and human history.
This book is an example of what happens when you go down rabbit holes. I have been reading several books on the subject of palaeontology and geology lately, and I know that the face of the earth has shifted over the hundreds of millions of years of deep history covered in these books. But where were all the continents at different times? Many will have seen the iconic maps of the supercontinent Pangaea. But I want to know more. What happened in between? And before? As Nield tells in Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet, Pangaea was only one of several such supercontinents in Earth’s history. But I want to know more still. Where exactly were the continents located? And how did they move? Several accessible books have provided snapshots of iconic moments, such as the formation of the Himalayas (Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet) or the disappearance of the Tethys ocean (Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World). But I want to know more! This technical reference work contains lots of fantastic palaeogeographical maps that answered all my questions.
I have only ever seen Greenland once while flying over it on my way to a conference in Alaska. But geologist William E. Glassley has spent several field seasons together with two fellow geologists working in this rugged landscape, uncovering its geological secrets. This slim volume describes their work, but more prominently, it is a rhapsodic tribute to Earth’s wild places and the transformative experience of finding yourself far away from civilisation. I had not heard of Bellevue Literary Press before, but they aim to publish books at the intersection of art and science, and I would argue this book fits the bill well.
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it is often said that we know more about the moon than we do about our own oceans. However, palaeo-oceanographer and climate scientist Eelco J. Rohling points out we know more than you might think. His new book, The Oceans: A Deep History, takes the reader through a 4.4-billion-year history of Earth’s oceans. Much more than just a book about water, this is foremost a book about the intimate link between our planet’s climate and its oceans, as they are far more intertwined than you might give them credit for.