It’s always the little things

I just finished “Darwin’s Lost World,” which I’d checked out from my local library. It’s a fascinating book, and the author, Martin Brasier, shows that wonderful dry English with throughout.

The book is an attempt to explicate the depths of time, where fossils hadn’t been known to exist – estimates were that the first 80% of the time life has been on earth had no fossils. That turns out to be incorrect. Life follows a power-law distribution – the smaller the organism, the more of them there are. The author is one of the pioneers in investigating micro-fossils and seeing how they explicate the early history of life.

The wit is something that makes the subject better for me. In the description of a multinational expedition to some cliffs in Siberia, for which the transportation scared expedition members more experienced than Mr. Brasier, we find the following:

We jumped down onto the beach. I was tempted to kiss the ground. As it happened, I was obliged to do just that – in a dysenteric sort of way.

A footnote explains that many in the expedition came down with Giardia, which provided them with a new slang meaning for the term, “Cambrian explosion.”

In the section titled “A steppe in the right direction,” we find commentary on the requirement that he acquire a taste for arak (fermented mare’s milk – his description of it is quite evocative) to avoid offending their hosts, finishing with the comment, “And social suicide was something we dared not commit, marooned as we were, in the middle of the steppes of Outer Mongolia. The social niceties of Mongolia can matter very much indeed.”

At one point, he cites a portion of an article written in 1902 by Jephro Teall (channelling my inner Dave Barry for a moment, that sounds like a good name for a rock band).

Apart from my delight in his drolleries, I thought the book was actually quite good. Contrary to expectations, microscopic fossils seem to be better preserved in older rocks, which has allowed the history of early life to be extended to perhaps 3000 million years ago. He covers the difficulties in identifying such fossils, the key question often being not “What does this remind us of?” but “What is this, really?” He covers some of the mistakes made by himself and others in other publications, and does it all in a manner I quite enjoyed.

If you have any desire to read about evolution, particularly about very early evolution, you should consider this book.

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