Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Here On Earth

I can remember being utterly entranced by the breadth of vision offered by Arthur C Clarke in a collection of essays titled 'Profiles of The Future'. In retrospect, some of those technological imaginings (such as mass transport by hovercraft) seem ridiculously quaint. Well, being wrong is an occupational hazard, as Clarke would have readily admitted. Nevertheless, those essays still invoke a sense of wonder in my mind whenever I think of them.

In Tim Flannery's latest book 'Here on Earth', I find that sense of wonder renewed.

The two works have little in common: Clarke was concerned with technological innovation whereas Flannery is describing a history of Life on Earth as told from two quite different, but mutually supporting views of evolutionary theory.

The most well known of these is, of course, the reductionist approach laid out by Darwin and championed in recent years by Richard Dawkins. Evolution proceeds as genes are handed down to successive generations by individuals who live long enough to breed.

And yet, it was only through the intervention of Huxley, and the good nature of its author, Alfred Wallace, that an alternative theory did not gain ascendency. Wallace proposed a more holistic theory of evolution; expressed in terms of system feedback rather than individual merit.

Today, Wallace is largely forgotten or, when he is remembered, dismissed as eccentric. However, as Flannery points out, his work sets the scene for Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, and serves as a foundation for meteorology, and even exobiology.

Taking these two approaches together, Flannery proceeds to chart the history of the Earth and, from the start, it proves to be a most fascinating journey. Life, it seems, made tectonics feasible by facilitating the circulation of lubricating water between plates. It caused metallic salts dissolved in the nascent oceans to be concentrated into ore bodies in the crust.


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