Shortsighted and arrogant. No, I’m not describing Richard Fortey’s Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, but rather the collective human race. I love people—I really do. Collectively, however, we sometimes act in the most inexplicable ways. This thought came to me repeatedly while reading Fortey’s book. The subtitle might explain the subject a bit fuller: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind. Fortey is a paleontologist who tells the stories, almost biographies, of various creatures that have survived eons with little change. He is quick to point out that all creatures evolve, but in the case of some, evolution has been minimal. Animals, such as his titular examples, and many others (cyanobacteria, tuataras, and, of course, coelacanths, just as a sampling) can sometimes be so well adapted to their environments that they change very little over time. In this book Fortey travels to see the living examples of those creatures he’s studied in fossils, and tells the story of an amazing continuity in a world of constant change.
Some of the species, particularly the plants and microscopic organisms, I’d never heard of before. I also have to admit to being surprised at how many very old life forms still exist. And admittedly, this is only a snippet of a much larger cloth. Throughout, I was pleased to see, Fortey mentions various religions—themselves often throwbacks—but not disparagingly (except the creationists). Noting that some creatures have a Buddhist-like calm, or that the Bible occasionally provides the phrase a naturalist writer seeks, here is an irenic meeting of science and religion that is so much needed. So why did I say “shortsighted and arrogant” at the start of this post?
One of the more disturbing truths revealed, and not just about charismatic megafauna, is that people have often hunted animals to extinction. Fortey suggests it has always been so. Large animals (megafauna) are easy targets and we have repeatedly hunted (and continue to hunt) them to extinction. We destroy habitats and thereby drive species extinct that we haven’t even yet discovered. What could be more arrogant of a single species? Looking back over 4 billion years of evolution should give us some perspective. We’re relative newcomers on this planet, and it isn’t ours to do with as we please. Fortey is gentle, but he does remind us that some of the creatures in this book will likely, no matter how great the catastrophe, long outlive us on the planet. Ours is a brief day in the sun. Shouldn’t we care for our planet rather than pillage it for our own gain? Ask the horseshoe crab. When we understand its language we might be able to begin to call ourselves wise.