Monday 26 September 2016

Two modern classics about evolution

The Diversity of Life by E O Wilson

The Diversity of Life is a classic of evolutionary literature from the renowned biologist Edward O Wilson. The first section of the book concentrates on ways in which life on earth has diversified to fit into all the niches that the planet offers. Wilson (no relation by the way!) looks at how small creatures are able to take advantage of tiny differences in soil or vegetation and thus diversify into a greater number of species than larger creatures. He cites lots of examples, but the one that will always stick in my mind is the species of rainforest ant (Wilson is a specialist in ant biology and ecology) which has a specialised species of mite that lives on the ants' feet. The ants don't let this bother them and in fact use the mites as 'shoes' and walk on them!

The second part of the book focuses on the human impact on life on earth and is both depressing in its cataloguing of the damage we're doing and already out of date (the book dates from 1992). This section isn't without hope, Wilson outlines numerous ways in which we can help to halt or at least lessen the biodiversity crisis, but it's still a slower read than the first section, which is so full of fascinating insights into the beauty of the natural world.

The Diversity of Life by Edward O Wilson published by Penguin (1992)

After Man by Dougal Dixon

Dougal Dixon is a widely respected expert on dinosaurs but he also casts his eyes into the future! This book from 1981 is a classic in speculative evolution.

After Man is a beautiful large format book that looks at possible ways that life on earth may evolve after humankind becomes extinct. It starts by discussing elements of how evolution works alongside how the landmasses of the earth may rearrange themselves in the future. The main body of the book looks at the earth 50 million years into the future, continent by continent and habitat by habitat exploring the animals that may one day be here to replace us.

It's a timely read, as many scientists now consider the earth to be in the midst of the sixth extinction, an extinction event largely (though not entirely) driven by humankind's encroachment on and destruction of wildlands. It's also a fascinating theoretical look at how evolution could work in the future, there are some wonderfully weird animals in here, all of them beautifully illustrated and described in detail, both in terms of appearance and also how they might behave and what current animals they might replace.

A fascinating book for anyone interested in evolutionary zoology or in invented animals!

After Man: A Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon published by Granada (1981).

There's an interesting article on the BBC website here that explores some of the ideas from After Man. 


Simon Douglas Thompson said...

I would love to read "After Man" - sounds like it would go well with Olaf Stapledon's classic sci fi masterwork "Last and First Men"

RG said...

"WE have seen the enemy, and he is us." - POGO