An Intimate History
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).
Mention geology to many people and the reaction is often one of indifference and lack of interest. This is odd, given that its subject is literally the base of our existence. Richard Fortey is a palaeontologist who has already given us several other excellent popular science books so he is well placed to tackle this perhaps rather daunting theme for a general audience.
A principal method he adopts is to link his descriptions to specific sites, such as the Hawaiian islands, the Alps, or Newfoundland. For each of these areas he looks at how our knowledge of their origin and structure has evolved since the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology brought about a radical change in people's understanding of the age of our planet and greatly influenced the young Charles Darwin. Later, in the twentieth century, another great intellectual earthquake occurred when it was recognized that Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, initially dismissed as cranky, was actually correct.
This is a long book as befits its theme, and it needs to be taken slowly. Fortey's writing is always lively, with nice touches of humour and personal reminiscence, but even so it is perhaps less gripping than his earlier books, especially the magnificent Trilobite!. Partly, perhaps, this is inevitable, given the remoteness of geology from our everyday concerns (unless you happen to be caught up in an earthquake or a volcanic eruption), but it is also related to the vocabulary, and this might have been made easier for the reader. The succession of geological terms for the different kinds of rock eventually becomes bewildering: unfamiliar names such as apophyllite, gneiss, charnockite, and sial tend to blur in the mind. The publishers would have been well advised to include a glossary; as it is, one has to keep referring to the index to sort things out. There is however an endpaper which illustrates the main geological eras, with their (to me) wonderfully evocative and poetic names: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian and the rest.
This criticism aside, the book is a fine achievement. Fortey succeeds, as well as anyone can, in conveying a sense of the huge scale of geological time, as it unfolds "vaster than empires, and more slow". We see continents coming together into a single land mass and then breaking up, not just once but repeatedly; and (perhaps most astonishingly) the Atlantic ocean forming, closing up, and then opening again. A constantly recurring leitmotif in the book is the insignificance of human life in this vast drama. "Mankind is no more than a parasitic tick gorging himself on temporary plenty while the seas are low and the climate comparatively clement. But the present arrangement will change, and with it our brief supremacy." There is nothing like geology for making us aware of our true place in the grand scheme of things.
27 May 2004
%T The Earth
%S An Intimate History
%A Fortey, Richard
%G ISBN 0-00257011-4
%P x + 501 pp
%K palaeontology, geology