A Pessimist in Paradise
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Steve Jones has given us here, it has to be said, a sombre book. Its elegiac theme is the world we have lost and the threatened destruction of human life itself by environmental disaster. But even if by some miracle or improbable sudden access of intelligence we take the measures needed to avoid the worst consequences of our profligacy and short-sightedness, our world will still disappear in the end. The final chapter, "A Pessimist in Paradise", concludes with a glance into the far future of our planet. The demise of corals throughout the world is merely a prelude to the fate that awaits us all, as the Earth is engulfed by the expanding Sun.
The reefs tell the story of how life began and record many of the catastrophes through which it has struggled. As human folly threatens their paradise with premature demise such places remind every one of us, pessimist or otherwise, that our own extinction is as certain as is theirs. Whether it will take place in the slow course of evolutionary time, or in the near future as our own imprudence causes Nature to take her revenge, neither Newton nor Darwin can say.The conclusions about global warming that Jones reaches here are very similar to those recently formulated by another scientist, James Lovelock (whose Gaia theory Jones has little liking for). But Jones is far too good a writer to indulge in nothing but breast-beating for over 200 pages. His book is full of fascinating facts and ranges far more widely than its title might suggest. It deals not just with coral itself but with what we can learn from coral about life, evolution, and ourselves.
The book could be described as an extended meditation that takes in history (Captain Cook and Gauguin), atomic bomb tests, the harmful effects of oxygen, and the iniquities of diamond markets among other topics. Darwin, of course, figures prominently throughout; a facsimile of the frontispiece to his book on coral reefs is reproduced and the text is illustrated with little diagrams taken from that work.
A wide-ranging book, then, and one that brings the reader into contact with an urbane and cultured scientific mind. We are fortunate to live at a time when popular scientific writing is at a paricularly high level; even so, Steve Jones stands out as one of the best exponents of the art.
14 June 2007
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