Book Review: Richard Fortey’s “Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution” – by Octavia

trilobiteI picked this book up of a shelf knowing what a trilobite was – like everyone else I’ve seen the fossils – but knowing absolutely nothing else about them. Fortunately for me, Richard Fortey fills up the gap by knowing absolutely everything about them that is known at present. Seriously, the man has an obsession.

But that’s alright. There are worse things to be obsessed about, and at least he’s not boring about it. I’d braced myself for a relatively dry book that nitpicked details that no-one but Fortey – who works for the Natural History Museum in London, studying trilobites – could possibly care about. Thankfully this is not the case. Fortey is well aware of the need to keep his prose informal and chatty, in order to better capture the attention of the ignorant and short spanned of attention. He has obviously come to the valuable conclusion that he is an obsessive, and that the rest of us need a bit of help to be as interested as he is. Witness this description of the Cambrian explosion:

In popular accounts it became an ancient moment of madness, a magnificent evolutionary Mardi Gras, when a parade as bizarre as could have been devised by a surrealist on speed would be permitted for a geological day. ‘See the crystal-eyed monster!’ ‘Roll up, roll up, for the shiny, tubiferous wiggly orphan thing with no relatives!’ The freak show was open for trade.

This is the first palaeontology book I’ve read that’s made me laugh out loud while reading it, because damned if I don’t look at some of the pictures and think “What the hell is that thing?”. Amusing as these frequent bursts are, it has to be said that they do cater a little too much to that short attention span. Personally, I found the humorous asides, the personal stories of trilobite hunting, and the anecdotes of other trilobitists (pity poor unknown Rudolf Kaufmann!) more interesting as they were easier to visualise than the purely scientific rocky stuff. Part of that is Fortey’s natural charm of description, but that charm is relied upon so often that when it isn’t present for a few short pages of nothing-but-science, I began to feel a little bogged down. This is completely unreasonable considering that drier books on evolutionary biology don’t have this effect, but then, when immersed in them, there’s little variation in the prose and I have nothing to compare the more boring bits to.

It helps that Fortey includes a lot of illustrations. And as the different types of trilobite (and who knew there were so many?) do begin to blur into each other after a while, being able to flick back and forth to the photographic plates whenever he resumes writing about species #17 is useful. I have to admit I spent more time staring at the plates than reading the descriptions of them – some of the photos included are truly stunning (that of the trident-bearing trilobite from the Devonian period in Morocco, for instance) and it can be hard to believe these things actually existed. My very favourite, though, was the dimwitted-looking Bumastus. Pick up the book and take a look, go on. I know it’s the back of the creature, but don’t tell me it doesn’t look like something propping up a seedy bar in Star Wars. As a picture book, Trilobite! gets an unqualified thumbs-up from me.

The only other possible stumbling block – and this will depend on your perspective, as it can also be interpreted as a strength – is the highly focused content. This is a book about trilobites, trilobites, and more trilobites. There’s not a huge amount of contextual material, and the focus on evolution isn’t as strong as it is in other texts, catchy title aside. If you’re comfortable with evolutionary theory, this will make no difference to you. However, those who aren’t may find the book’s tight focus less convincing. The best example here is the chapter “Crystal Eyes”. It’s undeniable that this is an interesting read – and the facts behind it are fascinating. Eyes made out of crystal – how could it not be! But it’s very different from the chapter on eyes in Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable. The latter is very broad and explanatory, and puts the development of eyes in a wider evolutionary context. “Crystal Eyes”, while reinforcing the “look at the trilobite, see it looking at you!” theme running through the book, is more specifically mechanistic, and for the beginner who is still under the “How can something as complicated as an eye evolve?” meme, this may be a problem.

Fortey is not, of course, writing an introductory text on evolutionary biology, and Trilobite! pretty much does what it says on the tin – and it’s enough to make you want to head off to your local museum to have a closer look.