Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Here Be Dragons - book review

Here Be Dragons - How the study of anima and plant distribution revolutionised our views of life and Earth, Dennis McCarthy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, paperback, 221 pages bibliography and index £8.99/ $18.95

This review first appeared in Fortean Times issue 281, November 2011

This celebration of biogeography – the study of the “lopsided distribution” of plants and animals, continents and even empires around the world – begins by pointing out that Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, Albert Russell Wallace and continental drift pioneer Alfred Wegener all did ground-breaking work in biogeography, and then went on to work in other fields and revolutionised all of these as well.

Wegener, it seems, was a bit of an adventurer, like most of the great biogeographers. Wounded in action in World War One, Wegener broke the early 20th century world records for ballooning endurance and longest ice cap crossing, before dying in a Greenland blizzard. His views on continental drift – and those of Alexander Du Toit, who followed Wegener, were an “outsiders’ struggle against convention.” Continental drift was dismissed at the time, by an orthodoxy that instead clung to a theory reliant on “miraculous rafters” who crossed oceans on bits of fallen tree, and of vast piles of yet to be discovered fossils that would one day prove that continents were fixed. The continental drifters were finally vindicated by the discovery in the 1960s of a spreading seafloor that was younger than the continents themselves.

McCarthy – a researcher with the humble Buffalo Museum of Science in upstate New York – writes beautifully and his story is compelling. He comes up with one of my all-time favourite chapter headings, “The Bloody Fall of South America and the Last of the Triassic Beak-headed Reptiles”. This gives a passing mention to the fearsome bison-sized “ratzilla,” the prehistoric guinea pig Jesephoartigisia monesi, which weighed a metric tonne.

Biogeography explains why there are bears and foxes in the Arctic but not the Antarctic, and McCarthy devotes much space to the “terminal Eocene event” that resulted in the “death of nearly all vertebrate life in Antarctica.” Compared the very rapid mass extinction of the pre-glacial Antarctic fauna, the demise of the dinosaurs was a picnic. McCarthy comments that there is “beneath the ice-sheets a continent-wide boneyard,” with the stoic penguins as the only surviving year-round Antarctic vertebrates.

Dragons even has a rare illustration of a just pre-glacial verdant Antarctic landscape populated with emu-like birds, sloths, falcons, possum-type creatures, something resembling a small cat, and a hefty hoofed mammal that look like a cross between a horse and an elephant. Pre-glacial Antarctic fauna is sadly neglected in the mountains of books for the general reader on prehistoric life, so it’s nice to see them getting a look-in.

As for the title, the routine appearance of “Here by Dragons” on ancient maps is itself a myth. The Latin phrase appears on only one known artefact, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, made three years after Columbus, and McCarthy says the phrase could have been used to identify the origin of Komodo dragon rumours.

Dragons reveals that Wallace’s line, the world’s “most famous biotic barrier” separating placental mammals from marsupials, is at its narrowest “a mere 25 miles” (40km). The final chapter on the (lack of) genetic variation among humans suggests the reason why the “genetic range of human beings is astonishingly narrow” is that we are “athletic generalists of the first rank” – most geographical barriers to species crossing can be climbed, swum or rafted over by humans.

It also turns out that all the authentic cuisine of “primeval paradise” Hawaii, and the flowers that make up Hawaiian lei garlands, was introduced to the islands by Polynesians some time after 500AD. Hawaiian pigs originated in Vietnam and its sweet potatoes came from a returning Polynesian expedition to Chile, while Captain James Cook brought the pineapples. Meanwhile, there’s one tree-dwelling skink whose “weirdly wide” distribution – on the far-flung islands of Samoa, Tonga and Futura – reflects the “irregular domain” of the 16th and 17th century Tongan monarchs.

It’s hard to find anything wrong with Dragons. You can probably skip the chapters on fish biogeography, which in an otherwise gripping read gets surprisingly dull at times. The date for the demise of Homo florensis seems a little recent. But such quibbles are insignificant. McCarthy tells us it was the fact that the Galapagos Islands “lacked frogs” that first got Darwin thinking that then prevailing “natural theology” may have had holes in it. The author very convincingly argues that biogeography, a relatively easy concept to grasp, is our best ammunition against current “intelligent design” and Creationist nonsense. And he argues this is a riveting and engaging fashion.


SCORE - 8/10

© Matt Salusbury 2011

No comments: