Three years ago Paul Taylor was inPanama scouting for Pleistocene bryozoans along the Burica Peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean at the Panamanian and Costa Rican border. Neil MacGregor had just published the book “A History of the World in 100 objects” and I mentioned his tome to Paul by saying “wouldn’t it be good to write a book called…” and we both said at the same time “A history of Life in 100 Fossils!”
Call it a fieldwork high, or stupidity, we egged each other on and by the end of the trip we had convinced each other to actually write it. Paul had had a good bit of experience in publishing popular books and he was extremely supportive. His parting words were however ominous; “Be prepared for a roller coaster”.
Over the next few months we compiled a list of well over a hundred possible fossils. As the book developed, many fell by the wayside as we discovered that there were no good-looking fossils to illustrate them, the story they told was not of sufficient interest or they overlapped too much with other stories.
Having never done anything like this I was honestly daunted by the writing but Paul pressed on and began to churn 400-600 word pieces on beautiful fossils he had with him at the Natural History Museum in London. The first spread I wrote was on the stromatolites and I called it “Sex, seaweed and steel” inspired by a lunch chat with geologist Tony Coates (the title was eventually changed to “Great Oxygenation” by the publishers, lamentably). I was delighted with my first spread and ready to take on the rest!
It was a fantastic experience, researching in detail about fossil groups I had previously paid little attention to. Spinning evolutionary tales with a single slab of rock and crafting them in a way that could be accessible to all.
As I wrote I tried to weave all the big biological themes into the book; natural selection, convergent evolution, sexual selection, extinction, the origin of life and even parasitism (check out the ant zombie death grip which starts “The eyeball-sucking sea louse, the five-mouthed sinus-feeding crab, and the copepod anal skin-bag are some of the more macabre examples of the innumerable and omnipresent parasites”).
In a couple of spreads I was able to highlight issues of climate change and conservation by using past events to place what is happening in todays world into context. The Steller’s Sea Cow spread is a sad tale of a once magnificent beast driven to extinction by hunting. Without its fossil record we would have had no idea that the animal was naturally widely abundant until a few thousand years of hunting whittled them away to almost nothing.
Paul and I sent our draft spreads out to expert colleagues for fact-checking. Their input was invaluable, although any errors are our own responsibility. Meanwhile, my mother made exceptional edits to the text, bringing the spreads to life and helping me engage with the reader in ways I had never been able to before.
Finally, we ordered brand new imagery of the fossils from the Natural History Museum, London and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. A few remaining fossils were held in private collections and many kind researchers gave up their time and resources to provide new photos for our book.
The book was published today in the UK and will be published (with a different front cover) in the US on the 15 October. You can get the book on-line at most retailers. It’s also probably in stock at your local Waterstones, if you are in the UK. Currently only a hard-backed version is available although the publishers talk of an ebook and other media.
If you are in Panama come to the book launch to be held at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Date to be confirmed... If you want some spreads to read I would be happy to send them along.