Sunday, October 21, 2012


Sometime back, I read Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey and I was wondering whether I should write anything about it. I had almost decided to skip it when I remembered this quote by Charles Darwin:

"doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue"

If the man said it. then there must be something to it. In this profile, Richard Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan to make a similar point. That is two more guys I can't ignore so I decided to write something about it. You don't have any luck, do you? It is not my fault - blame it on Darwin!

Trilobites were marine arthropods that  lived for about 300 million years and died out before the advent of dinosaurs. I first heard about them (as far as I can remember) when I read  A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson., The word seemed familiar but I had no idea what it was.As I read on, I realised that I knew very little about the history of life on earth and it seemed an interesting way to spend the time. It turned out to be more interesting than whatever I had studied earlier. Another of Fortey's books, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, was a useful tool in this endeavour.With books like these, it is easy to be an autodidact.

Returning to Fortey's trilobites book, it is  his attempt to make us 'see the world through the eyes of trilobites'..So you will learn about shells, legs, eyes, behavioural habits, etc. of trilobites with tongue twisters as names. You can see a bit about trilobites in the 2nd part of First Life. If you are desperately disappointed that I have not written more about these magnificent creatures, you can listen to Fortey holding forth on his favourite fossils. (Talking of fossils, you wouldn't want to be stuck like these poor creatures.) Fortey writes:
A puzzled fellow commuter on the train once asked me how I could go to the office day after day to study a trilobite.  I think he believed that there was only one trilobite, rather like the Mona Lisa, and that my day was spent contemplating it and making up new theories about its enigmatic smile.  I had to explain that my work was more like attending to an almost infinite system of galleries hung with Mona Lisas, and that often all we had was the smile.  And every time the end of one gallery was reached, there was another gallery beyond still to explore, and further again another... and hardly ever the legs.
Along the way, he discusses the lives of some lesser known scientists and how science gets done. He also discusses the importance of taxonomy which he says is more than merely stamp collecting. Here is a video of Richard Fortey and David Attenborough discussing taxonomy.

While describing exploration of Australia, Fortey writes:
The Fierce Snake lives in these wastes, the most poisonous snake in the world, a creature so spectacularly venomous that one of its bites can kill hundreds of laboratory mice. It obviously needs to be an effective predator in this terrain of thin rations - but why so outrageously lethal? After all, snakes do not eat kangaroos. Surely this is the most literal example of 'overkill' in nature.  
I immediately remembered a story I had read about an evolutionary arms race between the rough-skinned newt, 'the most ridiculously poisonous  animal in Anmerica', and the garter snake. My uninformed guess is that the Fierce Snake is also in some sort of evolutionary arms race. It is improbable that evolution will equip a creature with a feature so far in excess of its needs.

I know that mercy droppeth as the gentle rain upon the place beneath. I am told that it is twice blessed, blessing him that gives and him that receives. There was something about it becoming the throned monarch better than his crown. That being the case, I will end your torture here.

PS: If you want a massive dose of inferiority complex, look at this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Most serendipitously, I came across trilobites while playing, er, 'World Mosaics' - sort of an easier version of Minesweeper (once I figured out how to play it).
    Inferiority complex well and truly established after glancing at that 8-yr old's blog. Meh. We had an outdoor childhood.