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Two New Books Reviewed



Geoscientist 21.09 October 2011

In his latest book Richard Fortey brings us a magical myth-busting tour of evolutionary survivors that have defied eruptions, impacts, ice ages and continental collisions for a very long time indeed.

Unlike “survival of the fittest”, “living fossil” was an original Charles Darwin coinage. He adopted “survival of the fittest” - it was irresistible – after Herbert Spencer gave it to the world 10 years later. Both terms, like the tenacious species so lovingly described in this magnificent book, have proved impossible to kill off.

From stupid creationist tracts to clever Guinness ads, evolution tends to be portrayed as linear; one form mutating into another, which replaces it; the implication being that ‘newer’ is intrinsically ‘better’. But evolution is a bush, not a ladder. Fortey seeks out the lungfish in Queensland, the horseshoe crab in Delaware Bay, and Lingula on Hong Kong mudflats and concludes: there’s nothing ‘inferior’ about such successful organisms, just because they claim old evolutionary origins.

Textbooks tended to repeat two glib mantras about living fossils. One was that they long ago reached ‘optimal adaptation’. (But what is so ‘optimal’ about a horseshoe crab?) The other was that they ‘lacked genetic variability’. This seemed plausible until, during the 1970s electrophoretic studies of DNA showed it to be nonsense.

Lineages naturally generate species at different rates. Statistically, some will sit at the low end of the range: “every bell-curve has its tail”, as Steve Gould put it. These will be rare, because low speciation is usually a recipe for extinction. But there will always be lucky ones. Lungfishes (three living genera) displayed wide variability hundreds of millions of years ago, and boasted many species. Growing morphological conservatism correlates perfectly with their falling diversity. Restriction and conservatism are two sides of the same coin.

But to survive, a species needs something else– habitat. Refugees need refugia. Fortey reveals how many biological stick-in-the-muds actually do spend their lives more or less stuck in mud - like Lingula. No past Earth, no matter how hostile, has ever lacked mudflats, where food supply is also never a problem. Living fossils are conservative, low diversity species, living in persistent habitats. It also helps, it must be said, not to ask too much of life.

Fortey’s intense, humane passion for everything that lives and has lived is amply proved on every page. This book demonstrates yet again that Fortey is, principally, not a scientist who can write, but a superb writer who happens to do science.

Reviewed by: Ted Nield

RICHARD FORTEY Published by: Harper Press; Publication date: September 2011;
ISBN 978-0-00-720986-6 (hbk)
List Price: £25 400pp

Plates vs. Plumes: A Geological Controversy.

FoulgerIn the movie, Being John Malkovitch, the lead character discovers a portal into the mind of the film star, allowing him to experience life as Malkovitch for 15 minutes before being ejected into a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike. I feel that in reading this book I may have discovered the geological equivalent. Plates vs Plumes is Gill Foulger’s personal polemic against the mantle plume bandwagon and is a culmination of many years’ endeavour to destabilise that shaky vehicle. It is a scholarly compilation of the data, evidence and arguments that support the view that the mantle plume hypothesis is so poorly articulated, and so altered since its initial 1971 formulation, that it is now scientifically meaningless. Her alternative is that the phenomenology oft ascribed to mantle plumes can be better explained by the ‘Plate hypothesis’, in which all melting phenomena on Earth are a consequence of processes related to plate tectonics.

The book is structured according to the nature of the argument and the evidence. After the introduction in which the plume and plate hypotheses are clearly stated, there are chapters on vertical movements, volcanism, chronology, seismology, temperature and petrology, with a final summing up in which the author states her position that the plume hypothesis is broken. The book is well written, extensively referenced and copiously illustrated, although it is a pity that most of the figures are B&W, with a relatively small colour plate bundle, since much of the evidence is presented in the form of colour-contoured seismic sections. Extensive footnotes reference the web site, so ably championed by the author over the years, and each chapter ends with some questions for the student.

There were times when I found myself metaphorically dumped by the New Jersey Turnpike after about 15 minutes, fulminating at the unfairness of the representation of the pro-plume arguments. While many would agree with Foulger that the plume model has become all things to all Earth scientists, my reading of the plate model is that it is a similar amalgamation of a variety of postulated physical processes that may, or may not be effective in the modern mantle or in the geological past. The real challenge is to develop more sophisticated tests of the predictions of both models. It is only through closer observation that we will improve our understanding of the Earth’s inaccessible interior.

Reviewed by: Nick Rogers

GILLIAN FOULGER Published by: Wiley-Blackwell October 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4051-6148-0 (pbk)
List price: £39.95 364pp.