Saturday, 20 September 2003

Book Review: Richard Fortey's Trilobite!

Please click here to comment
By Paul Williams

On several occasions I have been privileged to meet Professor Richard Fortey at the Natural History Museum in London where he is a senior palaeontologist. As a fellow of the Royal Society he is one of the world’s experts on ancient marine arthropods, he abounds with authority and his lectures are every-bit as intriguing as his books. Fortey has had previous success with a number of books including the 1993 Natural World Book of the Year – The Hidden Landscape; Fossils: The Key to the Past; and the whistle-stop tour of evolution – Life, which was short-listed for the Rhône-Poulenc Prize in 1998. His Earth an Intimate History is expected to be much acclaimed when it is released later this year, but by far his most compelling book and the one I wish to review here sees Fortey indulging in his overriding palaeontological passion, one in which he has named over 150 species and in which he has one named in his honour (Forteyops) – Trilobites.

Trilobite! (2000) was the first science book ever to be nominated for the highly respected Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, taking an unashamedly ‘trilobito-centric’ look at the world, it uncovers the history of these peculiar relics, creatures that first came to life some 545 million years ago “before there were any plants on land.” Trilobites are arguably the most beautiful animals that have ever been chipped out of the fossil record; “the beetles of the palaeozoic” as Fortey describes them.

For Their Eyes Only

Trilobites are known only from their fossilized remains, carapaces – preserved upon death or shed during life as “veritable fossil factories” – and from the fossilised traces of their tracks as they manoeuvred across the ocean floor, which, as Fortey explains, tell us that they “could move over obstacles, flex and turn, like a train that needed no tracks on which to run.” But what trilobites tell us about our world is even more profound, through their story Fortey takes us back to witness continents move, mountain chains rise and erode; for 300 million years trilobites survived the harshest tests that the earth could bestow; ice ages, volcanic eruptions, shifting continents destroying and recreating their homes, Fortey shows how all the while these resilient arthropods evolved and adapted exquisitely to their environment; “They watched through their crystal eyes whilst life evolved, their own evolution calibrating geological time itself."

Seeing Trilobites
The Trilobite eye is poetically used as the books anatomical axis, first introduced in Fortey’s reflection of a passage from Thomas Hardy’s ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’, in which the protagonist falls over a cliff and as he dangles there sees his own mortality reflected in the stoney eyes of a trilobite. Fortey lambastes Hardy’s ill-informed anthropocentric description of the trilobite as “a low type of animal”; “who are we Johnny-come-latelies” he says “to label them as either ‘primitive’ or ‘unsuccessful’? Men have so far survived half a percent as long” (p.21). Their eyes are a particular testament to evolution as trilobites are the first creatures (that we know about) to have developed them and in some cases gained and then lost their vision as their place in the oceanic realm changed over the millennia. Fortey appropriately dedicates an entire chapter to describing the beauty and innovation of these ancient compound eyes in which each facet is a single crystal of optical calcite through which the world seemed “a mosaic, a shuttle of tiny images, overlapping, subtly changing from lens to lens."

Back to Basics

This book is more than simply an anatomical and stratigraphical treatise it is an introduction to geology and palaeontology which everyone interested in earth science will find useful. Early in the book he covers the “bread and butter of geology” colourfully introducing the reader to the essential geological principles which allow us to fully comprehend and decipher the messages locked away in the fossil record - the rock cycle, fossilisation process, radio isotope dating, mineralogy. I have to admit that the first time I tried reading Trilobite! I much too hastily put it back on the shelf after just the first few chapters as it seemed to be no more than a monotonous list of Latin names interspersed with introductions to geological principles that are uninterestingly simple for a geology graduate. Read on though and Trilobite! becomes much more interesting, rather like one of Fortey’s lectures; structured so that every moment is a gradual realisation of the fundamentality of trilobites to understanding the ancient world. Fortey has a reason for this, if we can recognise the most characteristic trilobites and their place in geological history then we can appreciate the stories that they tell and in this sense the book becomes much more rewarding for palaeontologist and non-palaeontologist alike. After we become familiar with the most characteristic of trilobites he gradually introduces theories of evolution and extinction, cladistics, Hox genes and the molecular clock which not only establishes our kinship with these ancient emperors of the sea but traces their divergence time all the way back to the Precambrian more than 570 million years ago. He allows the reader to experience the essence of scientific discovery as he leads us on the trail of the aberrantly goggle eyed Opipeuter inconnivus; discovering the detached eyes “puffed up like little bladders,” piecing them back together with other small skeletal fragments like a jigsaw until eventually through conjecture and refutation he reconstructs the skeleton and discovers a species and a mode of life which had been lost for millions of years. You can almost see the creative processes methodologically ticking over in Fortey’s mind until eventually he sees Opipeuter swimming before him. Trilobite! refreshingly paints invertebrate Palaeontology with all the drama and excitement of Deborah Cadbury’s Dinosaur hunters (2000), he writes in his preface; "I wish to persuade the reader of the excitement of recreating vanished worlds, and of seeing ancient seas through the eyes of trilobites. This is not an academic study rather it is an incitement to discovery”.

Ancient Worlds

In chapter one, after his literary preamble, Fortey recalls the wonder of childhood and the moment of revelation upon discovering his first trilobite at 14 years old; "The long thin eyes of the trilobite regarded me and I returned the gaze… there was a shiver of recognition across 500 million years" ever since he has been committed to recreating their world. Through extensive studies of Ordovician trilobites from 410-438 million years ago he has lovingly reconstructed the continental positions of this ancient world “Map the trilobites and you map the continent” he says. Trilobite! constantly conjures up the vastness of geological time as the author ponders the great cycles of earth history, the durability of rock compared with the brevity of human life, and more specifically reflects on the evidence underlying one of the greatest mysteries of evolution – the ancestral origin of trilobites, the predecessor of the Early Cambrian arthropods. Their beginnings and their sudden appearance with ‘Cambrian explosion fauna’ are discussed in the chapter aptly entitled ‘Exploding Trilobites’. Here Fortey deals not only with the confusion of this apparent prolific explosion of life but with several of the luminaries involved in the debate, politely manoeuvring through the hostilities that separate the esteemed views of Stephen .J Gould from those of Simon Conway-Morris. Although he does denunciate Conway-Morris for his below-the-belt attacks on Gould Fortey sides with him to tactfully disagree with Gould’s view of the disparity of Cambrian life – as portrayed in Wonderful Life (1989). Fortey however is more intent on discussing the latest views on evolution as seen through “trilobitology”, lucidly forwarding theories stemming from his work with Derek Briggs on the Burgess Shale and their piecing together of Cambrian blood-lines. By plotting a tree of descent relating, for the first time, all the peculiar arthropod-like creatures of this Cambrian graveyard they cladistically showed that not only were Burgess arthropods no stranger than trilobites but trilobites were not the archetypal primitive arthropods they were hitherto believed to be – they were relatively advanced for their time and must have required a substantial period of evolution before the ‘explosion’ 540 million years ago; “if there was an ‘explosion’ then it was a remarkably orderly one” (p.128). Fortey’s interweaving of established theory with new twists on old ideas lends itself well to a much contemplative read, one in which he never misses a chance to pay homage to those upon whose shoulders his work is built.

In the chapter ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ he reminds us that we have Niles Eldredge's study of Phacopid trilobites in the 1960’s to thank for influencing the much debated theory of Punctuated Equilibria which is usually accredited primarily to Stephen J. Gould. This theory not only explained the step-wise evolutionary path of these trilobites in the Welsh borders but it neatly explained away the "gaps" in the fossil record and apparent lack of smooth transitional forms in other creatures. Peter Sheldon however in the 1970’s found gradual transitions also in the Welsh Borders between the various species of the Ordovician trilobite Ogygiocarella. So, the debate continues.

I was surprised that the Ediacaran biota only played a passing role in Fortey’s depiction of metazoan origins and evolution. Although Mark McMenamin is mentioned by Fortey his theories regarding a number of possible arthropod precursors are not acknowledged and neither is his book Garden of Ediacara (1998) in which McMenamin identifies a couple of potential candidates for the elusive trilobite ancestor.

Trilobites on Parade

Following the chapter on eyes the book candidly continues its morphological enquiry with chapters fluidly illustrating the qualities of the carapace and legs, each describing important parts of the creatures’ hitherto-enigmatic anatomy. Each chapter systematically chronicles the key scientific discoveries and scientists that have led to our present level of knowledge. In the legs chapter the story really comes to life as Fortey anthropomorphises and animates in the readers mind a whole army of the commonest yet weird, wonderful and incredibly diverse trilobite forms from the most ancient to the last of their kind. Some were “smooth as eggs, others spiky as mines; giants and dwarfs; goggling pop-eyed popinjays; blind grovellors; many flat as pancakes, yet others puffy as profiteroles” (p. 69). And this is only a sampling, as we are not “anywhere near knowing how many kinds of trilobites still lurk undiscovered in the rocks.” The drawings and photographs that accompany his tale illuminate the sophisticated, transfixing architecture of the trilobites. Fortey brings a whole myriad of topics to life, but his gaze is not fixed exclusively on the remote past. He intersperses his account with anecdotes from his own fossiling adventures, including one humorous yet serious Bill Bryson-type episode in China when a sting from a giant hornet almost killed him; a colleague at the Natural History Museum later complained that he had failed to save the insect for their collection. Trilobites have certainly led Fortey down a veritable network of intellectual ally-ways. In Trilobite! he takes delight in the curios of trilobite history – such as the Chinese habit of grinding them up and drinking them in potions. When in a restaurant in Thailand he couldn’t resist ordering the Horseshoes crab – the trilobites closest living relative – taking the opportunity to not only taste his obsession but to dissect and study it, as any dedicated anatomist would.

He is always conscious to acknowledge his predecessors on the path to trilobitic enlightenment, he tells their dramatic tales with reverence and respect. Such as the story of Rudolf Kauffman, a German-Jewish palaeontologist whose love affair with a Swedish girl ended tragically when he was recognised and killed by Nazi’s whilst trying to join her in Sweden. Fortey not only engages the reader with the wonderful story of trilobites and trilobitologists but also with his personal obsession with them, how he rose through the ranks of palaeontology and his many adventures with his teachers and colleagues. After a scientific career spanning more than four decades Fortey is accomplished enough to use the study of trilobites to symbolise modern science and does so neatly and accessibly displaying the creative part of the scientific endeavour.

A Trilobitologists view of Science

In the last few pages of the chapter: ‘Discovery’, he describes the mechanisms, cooperation and interconnectedness of science as he prepares us for the scientific vigour of palaeontology and the passion of those who make it their life, qualities which shine throughout the book. Rather than “trial-by-combat” pitting muscular intellect against muscular intellect, Fortey views science as a much more amicable endeavour a “journey into uncharted territory” (p.21). It is a human pursuit in which every little contribution helps in the onward progression of knowledge; in the chapter ‘eyes to see’ he describes scientific work as “interconnected: like a spider’s web, it is sensitive to movement in any part of the structure, and interlinking strands give it its strength” (p. 246). The final chapter rings-through with the two cultures debate as Fortey considers the hostility that many people feel for science, as an uncreative, emotionless and cold pursuit opposed to art – Fortey certainly fits more into John Brockman’s third culture than C.P. Snow’s culture of science, witness the way he refers to the intricacies of science; “I regard everything I have described as raw material for the poet. Even the smallest item of scientific revelation can be a matter for joy, and a truth unearthed glitters with the iridescence of a tropical Papilio butterfly” (p.250) he says.

Epitomizing Jacques Deprat, a brilliant young French geologist in the early 1900’s Fortey highlights what he sees as the fundamental difference between art and science. Deprat worked extensively to uncover the geological history including the trilobites of Vietnam (see the Deprat Affair by Roger Osborne 1999) only to be disgraced by accusations of falsified data and ‘planted’ specimens, abruptly terminating his prosperous career. Art and literature may be exaggerated or even completely fabricated, and like all humans scientists do often make mistakes “but what no scientist is allowed” Fortey says “is deliberately to mislead” (p.240). “science trades on the truth – nothing but the objective fact. The truth of the artist can recombine the facts of the world in the service of creation, but the scientist has a different duty, to discover the truth lying behind the façade of appearance” (P.15).

He leaves his Trilobites hidden in the wings while he engages us with his penultimate literary performance lambasting the public’s image of the stereotypical scientist. Either the haphazard-weedy-boffin Professor Calculus-type or the sinister ambitious Dr. Strangelove-type; “Both the benign and the intimidating images reflect the ambiguity of the role as the layman sees it.” Unlike Dr. Strangelove, Fortey laments that it is the harmlessness of such research as his that makes it more difficult to fund. Nether-the-less the scientist can always dream, and as Fortey ends this tale of two-eyes, a thorax, pygidium and cephalon he takes a moment to reflect on what the future may hold for trilobites, remaining optimistic that they may yet be found alive and well in some deep part of the ocean.

Although at first I was doubtful of Trilobite! it quickly proved to be one of Forty’s most captivating, he does for trilobites what Pat Shipman did for Archaeopteryx (1998) and his literary finesse deserves him to be crowned the Bill Bryson of the invertebrate palaeontology world. Trilobite! is so packed with information, so engaging and yet so unpretentious that it makes you forget that you're learning something, swiftly passing from page to page so that the book is over before you know it and your ready for the next Fortey instalment.

Trilobites, as seen in 1916 by the German painter Heinrich Harder.

Cadbury D. 2000. The Dinosaur Hunters. 4th Estate.
Gould S.J, 1989. Wonderful Life, The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Penguin.
McMenamin M.A.S, 1998. The Garden of Ediacara, Discovering the First Complex Life, Columbia University Press, New York.
Osborne R. 1999. The Deprat Affair, Ambition, revenge and deceit in French Indo-China. Johnathan Cape, London.
Shipman P. 1998. Taking Wing, Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight. Phoenix Press.