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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 15 February 2015

"Deep Time" by Henry Gee

This is a book about palaeontology, the study of fossils. That makes it sound very dry and dusty. By Henry Gee knows how to tell a good story and every chapter is full of reminiscences, such as when he was hunting for human remains with the Leakeys, his student work experience classifying fish fossils in the Natural History Museum or and who went to which pub during the disputes that introduced cladistics to palaeontology.

I also adored his chapter headings which show evidence of a wide range of reading far beyond I would have expected from a fossil hunter. But I guess you need a decent stash of books for the long dark desert nights:

  • Chapter 1 is called Nothing Besides Remains, quoting Ozymandias but adding a nice double meaning
  • Chapter Two: Hunting Unicorns, refers to a essay by Jorge Luis Borges about Kafka
  • Chapter 3: There are More Things, quotes Hamlet's remark to Horatio
  • And Chapter 7: Are We Not Men? is from a work by H.G.Wells

Gee's main thrust is to consider palaeontology as a science. He points out that fossils represent a few brief glimpses of bones out of millions of years of evolution. He reminds us that evolution is not purposeful nor is it a progression and that if we try to understand evolution from the point of view of creating adaptations that we see in the modern world we are assuming that the environmental conditions millions of years ago that led to the creation of a species were the same as now. So, for example, feathered birds might have had an evolutionary advantage millions of years ago for reasons we cannot now guess and it might have been entirely an accident that they are also useful skin coverings for an animal that flies.

From Gee's point of view the brilliant thing about cladistics is that it doesn't assume any heritage or ancestral linkages. It simply groups fossils by their features into 'sister-groups' and uses the Principle of Parsimony to derive the best possible tree diagram summarising relationships between the individuals.

Gee makes his arguments thoroughly; sometimes I thought points were repeated more than they needed to be. He also explains cladistics on a very simple level and I would like to have known a little more about these techniques, especially since cladistics can be used to explore the relationships (and thus possibly infer the ancestry) of Chaucerian manuscripts and of languages.

But on the whole this was a thoroughly enjoyable Science book about an area of Science I had not previously believed could be so much fun.

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