REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Darwin’s Lost World: The hidden history of animal life” by Martin Brasier

If you’ve ever wondered what the hell was going on with LIFE ON EARTH before the “Cambrian Explosion”, this is your book!  Written by (what has to be) England’s cheekiest Paleobiologist, it’s a highly entertaining and engaging romp through the ups and downs of reading the story of the fossil record for signs of earth’s earliest life.

No-one’s reputation is spared in this clear-eyed assessment of what we know from the fossil record (as well as what we don’t know, and what we thought we knew at various times since Darwin dropped his bombshell on the world).

The book plays out like a Mrs. Marple mystery as scientists (including, it should be noted, the author himself) struggle to understand the clues to a game for which they also must figure out the rules (to borrow the author’s metaphor), which is why:

“Human progress towards learning the rules for decoding the fossil record has therefore been slow, requiring trial and error, with lots of questions, intuition and counter-intuition, accompanied by oceans of doubt.  But then, science, which always rejoices in a good question, is a unique system for the measurement of doubt.” (P. 34)

Along the way are plenty of personal anecdotes from the author, such as his tart description of the cuisine available when hunting for fossils in Mongolia:

“On previous days, we had been served what seemed like a pottage of sheep’s anal sphincter jumbled together with goat’s entrails.  Only it didn’t taste quite as nice as all that might sound.” (P. 94)

The author strings us along like any good mystery writer would, only in this case the “big reveal” that is usually reserved for the last act turns out to a quiet conclusion to a series of quiet bombshells that have been dropped along the way.

I know this sounds like an arcane bit of history to spend time with, but the answers to the riddle of what the earliest fossil record tells us (and why the story has taken so long for determined and bright humans to piece together) are important ones, and touch upon many of the areas of ignorance that allow so many to dismiss Evolution as some sort of “braniac’s” fairy tale.

In this, I can’t sum it up better than the author:

“The answer to this howdunnit — how did life begin? — really matters to us now because it helps to define the nature of the human condition.  Even in science, however, big questions like these can appear to have more than a single answer.  This is awkward because the answers to big questions affect us deeply.  They have great predictive power.  We are all trying to guess what lies over the hill, for us and for our children.  If we guess the wrong answers, we could well affect the fortunes of civilization.  When Don Cortes and his men arrived in Mexico, for example, the Aztec soldiers greeted them as gods — but would they have not done better to fight them as enemies?  Or when the great Christmas Tsunami struck Asia in 2004, should the tourists have run inland or simply stood on the shore and prayed?  And now that AIDS is striking in Africa, should doctors inoculate against the virus or invoke all the Angels in Heaven?  There is no doubt about it.  When it comes to the crunch, seeing the world as it really is will matter to us, and to our children, very much indeed.” (P. 232)

“…seeing the world as it really is…” indeed.   A powerful idea, that.

I recommend this book highly.  It is such a split personality of adventure yarn and science text that if one part lags the other will carry you along.  Or, if you’re like me, you’ll simply get two books for the price of one!

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

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