Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Richard Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

I used to think that the trilobite was merely one of those instantly recognisable fossils, sort of like an elongated and flattened woodlouse. The sum total of my knowledge of trilobites was, in the style of a foot note to a child's introduction to fossils, that they were distant relations of the modern horseshoe crab. Growing up in Birmingham, I'd never seen a horseshoe crab, though on visits to Dudley Zoo, I should have become more acquainted with its older ancestor. Trilobites are found in vast numbers in quarries around that Midland town, and the 'Dudley Locust' as it was known, features on the town's crest.

Richard Fortey's book on trilobites is full of such facts. However it is much more than the sort of history that rests everything on a collection of similar pieces of information. The trilobite forms an important moment in the evolution of life on Earth, and its very success has enabled scientists like Fortey to contribute enormously to our understanding of the history of the planet.

The tale is also the tale of Fortey's own career. From his early discovery of a trilobite as a young boy looking for fossils, "other boys discovered girls, I discovered trilobites" to exhibitions as wide-spread as Spitsbergen, Canada and China, his studies of the thousands of trilobite species have led him to be one of those few individuals lucky enough to be pursuing a career in a childhood passion. But Fortey's own interests are much wider than trilobites. Alongside detailed explanations of natural history and planetary geology, his book is peppered with literary quotes and poems. All this makes for a readable and fascinating account.

So why are these animals so important. Its not their size. Few of the species seem to have grown more than a foot or so, many of them were a few centimetres in size. Their sheer numbers are stunning. Some of the pictures in the book of enormous quantities of fossils and pieces of fossil, piled on top of each other, are testament to the numbers of trilobites that must have existed on sea bottoms and in the depths of the water. Trilobites were amazingly successful. They came into being when the continents themselves were part of earlier arrangements - before the Pangean super-continent, stretching back millions of years. They lasted for 300 million or so years, far longer than our own species.

Its this longevity that in part explains tribolite importance. Mapping out the places that their fossils are found can help identify the locations of ancient seabeds and coastlines. The very movement of the Earth's plates, and hence the continents, around the globe are marked by were fossils of trilobites can be found.

A trilobite fossil, yesterday.
There's much more too. Despite the 540 million or so years since they lived, trilobites were not primitive creatures. Their hard shells demonstrate eons of evolution themselves. Able to curl up and protect themselves from predators, or on occasion produce spears and tridents to help get their food, scientists have identified trilobites that roamed the surface, swam in the Cambrian oceans and lived under the mud.

A few lucky scientists have made careers from bridging the boundaries of their disciplines. Most trilobites could see, growing crystals of calcite that focused light onto sensitive cells. The very notion of an animal with eyes partially made from the same substance as rocks or shells is stunning, and Fortey devotes a fascinating chapter to the evolutionary and biological questions that this throws up.

The trilobite is a humble creature. Fortey says that he has given up hope that there remains a remote ocean-valley holding a still living colony of these creatures. It seems, sadly, that despite the animal's success, it was unable to survive the changing environment. However, the insight that we can gain from its life into sciences as varied as plate-tectonics, genetics and evolution, surely gives this animal an importance far beyond its own humble life. Richard Fortey's wonderful book is a brilliant insight into all of these subjects and far beyond.

Related Reviews

Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

Monday, December 26, 2011

Neil Gaiman - American Gods

I read the "author's preferred text".

I will start this review by making a very clear statement about the book under scrutiny. Neil Gaiman's American Gods is one of the best fantasy novels of the last twenty years. I am sure that most readers of this blog will know the feeling you get when you discover a new author that ticks all of your boxes. From almost the first page of this story I knew that I would eventually devour everything that Gaiman has written. The only question is one of speed.

Gaiman's view of the United States is not one that the American government would like. His America is one that is more than the superficial niceness of shopping malls, or the repetitive nature of identikit roadside restaurants. Gaiman peers through this to the uneven, dirty America beneath. One of poverty and shallowness, of kindness and hope mixed with despair. For most people, hope has been replaced by the short-term desire for objects and feelings that will numb the over-riding feeling of pointlessness.

Gods arise out of belief. When the first farmers gave thanks for their crops, or the hunters turned to the skies and praised those that had given them an easy kill, Gods were created. They drew strength from their followers. The more that made sacrifice or prayers the more powerful they were. America, a land populated by immigrants from the time of the last ice-age has many imported Gods. Those who arrived on the shores and gave thanks to the old Gods, created new versions of them on the new continent. The vikings (and other more fantastical visitors such as the Egyptians) brought Odin and Loki and numerous others. But the worship dwindled with the failure of those communities. Later immigrants brought Gods from Ireland and elsewhere. Some prospered, some are reduced to poverty, themselves praying for followers and urging worships.

But new Gods prosper and grow strong. The Gods of commodification and short-term pleasure. Gods of money and electricity, of railways and engineering. These might be seen as an analogy for capitalism itself, its dynamism throwing up new objects of worship, which are rapidly eclipsed like steam power gives way to electricity. The Gods engage in a final battle for supremacy, and Shadow, the hero of the piece is drawn in. As bodyguard and then as a central piece in the chess game itself. The battle between old and new is a metaphor for America itself. The backdrop is the very development of the continent and the lives of the people who made it.

The idea of Gods having strength from worship is not new. Nor is the mortality of Gods who lose their followers. Pratchett did it in Small Gods and Douglas Adams also played it for laughs in Dirk Gently. Gaiman creates a many-layered world of belief and magic, parallel to, but not separate from our own world. The differences between good and bad are blurred here. The unity of the Gods, old versus new, obscures the fact that both sides have their own divisions. For most of the Gods, humans worship them, but are also objects to satisfy their own base desires. People to be seduced, laughed at and scorned. You could if you want, employ a further metaphor here, human life generates the religious value that the Gods crave and need to continue their blind, irrational lives. The further accumulation of belief requires the further use and abuse of humans, even if some Gods enjoy the exploitation less than others.

I will avoid the temptation to draw out the detail of the story. The climatic battle between old and new here does not necessarily herald a change in the human world, though one is left with the feeling that a world were the only Gods that exist are ones that represent Internet shopping and machine guns would not be a good things for ordinary folk. Whether humanity ever ever throw off the Gods themselves is left to the imagination. His voyage through America as Shadow explores the other world that he has hitherto not observed, is a work of detail. From the small towns, with their delicious undercurrent of pain and suffering, to the rank, sterile life of shopping malls and banks, the book is part travelogue, part crime caper, part fantasy and in large part, a tale of retribution and revenge. It is a wonderful read that will suck you into an alternate world, but one that is strangely familiar.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Philip José Farmer - The Dark Design

Volume three of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series is one of those novels were you wonder if the series is about to "jump the shark". The two earlier ones, set as they are, on a baffling and fantastic planet were the vast majority of humans from all epochs of history have been resurrected, are excellent reads.

Farmer's orginal idea though, was so vast in scope that there was no way that it could be limited to one or two books. Indeed, in the preface to this novel he explains that the story continued to grow. What was meant to be the final volume became the penultimate.

Farmer is trying to tie up lose ends here. His various characters, or groups of characters are all famous individuals from Earth's history. Unlikely groupings of people like Mark Twain and Cyrano de Bergarac, Jack London and Richard Burton are some of the figures that are trying to find their way to an enormous tower at the centre of an arctic sea. As suggested by its name, Riverworld is dominated by a single river that stretches from pole to pole and back around the other side of the globe. This continuously flowing stream is surrounded by millions of humans. Despite these numbers, chance encounters seem common enough. Certainly enough that Farmer can experiment with the lives (both actual and fictional) of his characters.

Despite some good ideas here the plot occasionally feels of artifical. In one area of the planet the stone age society (there are limited metals and minerals on Riverworld) is running short of the flint it needs for tools and weapons and society is moving backwards. Yet elsewhere, one of the planet's founders has been able to divert an asteroid to provide a huge variety of material for technological development. So some explorers, travelling now by assorted balloons, steam boats and blimps have helicopters and lasers, which seems to me to undermine the point of the story somewhat. Elsewhere the novel seems to have been limited by its editorship. Do we really need to have every measurement in both imperial and metric values? The following sentence, for instance, should win a prize;

"In this deep, cold cup the water surrendered warmth, so much that the temperature at 1524 metres or 5000 feet was 2 degrees above Centigrade."

On the same page, on character orders de Bergarac, the pilot of his airship to 'Take her down to 1530 metres, Cyrano'. The exactness of the figures seems unnecessary.

The quest to get to the tower dominates the lives of the characters, the sole point of the world that the author has created is to beg the question why has this happened and why have human's been resurrected upon it. The quests to the tower, initiated by a rogue member of the intelligent beings that created the planet are part of finding the answers. Yet the story keeps running away from the author. It is non-linear too, Farmer weaving plot-lines around each other in a confusing mix. Farmer created a wonderful fantasy world here. I just hope that the final parts of the story answer the questions posed early on and don't confuse things more.

Related Reviews

Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Farmer - The Fabulous Riverboat

Monday, December 19, 2011

David J. Breeze - The Antonine Wall

The northern-most frontier of the Roman Empire, marked out by the Antonine Wall is often overlooked by its more impressive southern cousin built by Hadrian. The history of the Antonine Wall is much shorter, and according to David Breeze, it was likely to have been built by a new Emperor, keen to extend his Imperial boundaries in order to win a triumph. But extending the borders like this didn't really win the Emperor much, Breeze points out that he conquered "territory which had once been Roman and, we might expect, had been kept under Roman surveillance ever since."

Unlike Hadrian's wall, much of Antonine's was constructed from turf, rather than stone. An impressive military way would have shadowed the wall, and forts and fortlets helped soldiers patrol and guard the approach. Again, as with Hadrian's wall, this was less of a military defence and more of a border or statement of power. Breeze locates the wall in a wider "military landscape", with Roman forts, settlements and patrols extending over a wider area, north and south of the actual border line.

For those academically interested, there is a wealth of detail here - distances and sizes, lists of military forces based at particular points and so the like. There is also a smidgen of humour, I liked that the chapter dealing with the day to day life of the soldiers stationed on the wall, is called "Life on the Edge". For those soldiers who may have served, or originated in Africa, as evidence of ancient cooking styles implies, this cold northerly location at the most extreme end of the Empire must have felt very isolated indeed. Very much an edge between the known and unknown.

Sadly little of Antonine's wall survive. Extensive parts have fallen foul of the plough, but Breeze's book provides a useful guide to the best places to view the wall. From personal experience I recommend Rough Castle, not simply for the remains, but because of the sense of the wider landscape that the Romans would have been located in. This is a useful introduction to the history of this part of the Roman world and some of the debates and discussions that are still absorbing academic minds. Breeze is honest enough to admit that he has emphasised the evidence that backs his own theories, but I suspect that much of this would mean little to the lay reader anyway, and is unlikely to detract from a useful introduction to a small part of Roman Britain.

Related Reviews

Watkins - The Roman Forum
Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar
Beard - Pompeii; The Life of a Roman Town
Beard - The Roman Triumph

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gitta Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth

Gitta Sereny's detailed and scholarly examination of one of the key figures in Hitler's leadership is also extremely readable and powerful, two qualities rare in biography. At times it is terrible to read, the subject matter by necessity must examine details of the Holocaust and the use of slave labour that is repugnant. There is a compelling fascination though. For anyone who has ever wondered how the Holocaust could happen, how fairly ordinary men and women could be complicit in the mass murder of six million Jews, and millions of communists, socialists, trade unionists, Gypsies, gays and lesbians and countless other "undesirables" there is a desire to try and understand the reality of life under German Fascism.

There is meticulous research behind this book. Sereny seems to have spent a lifetime in archives, reading documents and interviewing every conceivable participant who knew the individual she was writing about. From his secretaries and servants in Hitler's bunker, to his wife and prison guards. But most of all, she interviewed Speer himself.

Following his trial at Nuremberg for his involvement in war-crimes, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Even before the trial itself he was undergoing a transformation. By the time of his release, he seemed obsessed with expressing his own repentance. Many of his existing circle of friends disowned him - they could not understand his desire to distance himself from Hitler, nor criticise the former Fuhrer. This process had begun, at least publicly, for Speer in the dock, when he'd attacked the man to whom he owed so much. Even in Spandau prison, several of his co-defendants could not forgive him for this.

Sereny's biography beings with Speer's childhood. Given the realities of German life in the early twentieth century, Speer was lucky to be the son of a prosperous, if unloving architect. The stilted and cool atmosphere of the middle class upbringing shaped Speer's own inability to display warmth. No doubt, his later relationship with Hitler carried echoes of the relationship that Speer would have liked to have had with his own father. However, to reduce their complex friendship to this would make nonsense of the other factors and realities of Speers' life.

By chance Speer found himself the favoured architect of Hitler. Speer had never been a party man, though he rapidly found himself at the heart of the Nazi organisation, joining formally in the early 1930s. However his rise was startling, and by the time of the war, he had moved on from designing homes to prominent Nazis, to heading up some of the most important industries of the German war economy. He proved extremely able. Even during the height of the bombing campaigns Speer helped ensure that the German economy continued to produce munitions and equipment for the armed forces. Central to this was the question of slave labour, labour that originated in the concentration camps, from Jew's exiled from their homes and from captured prisoners.

At the heart of the book, and indeed most articles about Speer is the question of his knowledge. To what extent was he aware of the mass murder taking place? Sereny's answer is couched in riders. Firstly she argues that it wasn't true that everyone in Germany was aware of the mechanised slaughter taking place at death-camps in Poland. This is not to say that people didn't think killing was taking place, or that something was going on. She includes Speer in this - he must have been aware that large numbers of people were being transported away from their homes, just has he must have known that hundreds of thousands of labourers were coming from somewhere.

Central to this debate, is whether or not Speer was present at an infamous speech that Himmler made to leading members of the SS. The text of Himmler's speech, which mentioned the slaughter and what needed to be done to solve the Jewish question, refers to Speer on several occasions, as if Speer himself was in the hall. Speer admits that he was there in an earlier session, speaking on questions of wartime production, but claims to have left. When the speech was made public, Speer spent many long hours trying to prove that he wasn't there, by sitting in the archives looking for evidence.

It is worth at this point noting Sereny's own brilliance as a researcher and historian. She examines Speer's life day by day, sometimes hour by hour, trying to tease out exactly where he was and when. What could he have known, who else was with him, what might he have heard. The detail is almost overwhelming, but builds up her central thesis, that Speer knew far more than he let on. This level of detail is important for Sereny too, because Speer spent many many ours creating his own story in an attempt to free himself of suspicion.

This desire to clear his name shaped Speer's later life. His defence at Nuremberg, was to denounce Hitler and his actions, accepting his responsibilities, but not his guilt. However once his imprisonment began, he seems to have begun to construct a careful web of stories that highlight his independence and criticism of Hitler as well as ignore his links to the aspects of the regime that would have acknowledged his awareness of the Holocaust. One example of this, is in the description of his final meeting with Hitler. Speer claims in his book, Inside the Third Reich, that he re-afirmed his personal loyalty, but admitting to working to countermand Hitler's final scorched earth policies. In a famous paragraph, Sereny points out that:

"Psychologically, it is possible that this is the way he remembered the occasion, because it was how he would have liked to behave, and the way he would have liked Hitler to react. But the fact is that none of it happened; our witness to this is Speer himself." [529]

Speer's original draft manuscript for the book, written in prison, contained no such story - surely something that would have been at the forefront of his mind. In fact the opposite is then claimed, Speer saying that he did not confess to Hitler. Similar examples abound in Sereny's book, as she uncovers the detailed process that Speer went through, before presenting his carefully selected story to the world. Speer makes much of his break with Hitler - his desire to protect the German people. So much so, that Speer claimed to have made plans to kill the Fuhrer.

After reading over 700 pages of Sereny's detailed account, its difficult to believe anything that Speer says. Not necessarily because he deliberately lied all the time, but because he was keen to portray himself in a particular way. He was after all, one of the last remaining figures from Hitler's inner circle and few could contradict him.

Sereny doesn't limit herself simply to telling, or criticising Speer's story. She spends time examining other aspects to the story of Nazi Germany. Some of the powerful parts are the tales of those that did know about the Holocaust and sought to alert the world. Some of these tales are tragic, as the fairly to be believed or listened to, drove individuals to despair and suicide. Sereny highlights these tales, to argue that some people were brave enough to stand up, or at least find out what was going on. Those who argue that the only chance to survive the dictatorship was to keep ones head down, may have been accurate, but they took a particular moral path.

Speer did not do this. He feigned ignorance and enjoyed his privileged life as long as he could. That said, he did clearly break with Hitler. He seemed to be one of the few who could challenge Hitler's madness, though Speer was not brave enough to break completely. There is an element, at least in how SEreny describes it, of love between the two men. Or perhaps hero worship by Speer. His return to Berlin to see Hitler one last time, smacks vaguely of the behaviour of a lover who cannot quite bring themself to say a final goodbye.

Sereny shows that many of those who knew Speer, during the war, during his imprisonment and after his release seem to have fallen into a kind of spell. Speer was clever, articulate, handsome and dashing. But she reminds us, he worked closely with people who had inspected concentration camps. Drank champagne with men who organised the Holocaust and had visited the slave labour camps. Even if the experience here shocked him enough to demand improved conditions for the workers.

Sereny concludes by quoting an exchange with Speer. An article she'd written quoted some word's of Speer's, written in 1977:

"However to this day I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance [Billigung] of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews."

After he had checked this with her, and added a clarifying footnote which, if anything, strengthens the statement, Sereny asks why he was saying this now after denying it for so long. The article he had written was in response to a Holocaust denial book and Speer explained that he could no longer "hedge" the question, "for this purpose". Sereny comments that had Speer said this at Nuremberg, he would have hung with the other Nazis.

Sereny's book leaves little doubt that Speer knew far more than he admitted. His survival at Nuremberg and the second career he carved out as a writer stem from his ability to selectively tell a horrific story. But it is also clear that Speer was himself horrified by what had been done. The Holocaust was the outcome of the coming to power of a powerful political force that had been moulded by Hitler. The fascist bands that made Germany safe from socialist revolution relied on racism and prejudice to cement the street gangs together. They broke the communists and the trade unions, but they also opened the door to mass murder. Speer, and many of the industrialists that he came to work closely with during the war, found the world of Hitler one that they could do business with. A tiny number turned their backs and walked away, Speer and many others did not.

Related Reviews

Sereny - Into that Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and History

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Brian Greene - The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

In this challenging book "string theorist" Brian Greene has attempted to being together the most recent understanding of this complex branch of theoretical physics together with the context that it was developed in. He starts, as any explanation of modern physics must, with the inadequacies of our own experience of the universe. We can, to borrow Greene's analogy, understand why a ball might bounce, but we cannot use the same set of ideas to explain what happens when a star enters a black hole, or what happens to particles travelling close to the speed of light.

So Greene begins with a detailed explanation of the big picture. Starting with Newtonian physics, he quickly moves through the developments that led Einstein to his Special theory of Relativity and thence onto the General Theory. Having efficiently and clearly covered this ground, Greene turns to the other end of the scale and teaches the reader Quantum Mechanics in a few chapters. These sections of the book are some of the best, most accessible and well written. Greene is given to the over use of metaphor, something that is always a problem when discussing theoretical physics, but sometimes the metaphor's are culturally limited and difficult to understand ("It's as if you were playing The Price is Right and Bob Parker gives you ten billion billion dollars and challenges you to purchase products that will cost... all but 189 of the dollars").

Having reached general relativity and quantum mechanics physicists were then challenged with finding the link between them. Or rather a theory that could include both. Both work extremely well on the macro and micro levels, but though general relativity should theoretically work on a quantum level, the equations break down. String Theory is an attempt to link the two together and get us closer to a Grand Theory of Everything.

Now String Theory is a way of looking at the building blocks of the universe as being small loops of vibrating string. The different vibrations represent different energies and hence, because mass and energy are linked, different types of particles. All well and good. Explanations beyond this become complex and difficult and you really need to find a good book to explain it further.

The question is, has Brian Greene written that book? I have to say that I don't think so. Its been immensely popular, and even if it has slightly dated in the decade or so since first publication, it pretty much covers the basic areas covered by modern string theory. But does it explain it well?

Firstly I struggled to work out who the book was aimed at. Certainly not string theorists themselves (many of whom are name-checked here). It is designed as an introduction to the topic. What about scientifically literate readers such as myself? Well I have a degree in Maths and Physics and some of the sections in here were baffling to me, despite repeated readings. In places I felt I needed more (perhaps more equations and numbers would have helped). The biggest problem was I felt, that without a fairly detailed grasp of the equations themselves, no amount of metaphor can explain the concept of dimensions folded in on themselves, or other equally complex ideas. Certainly I felt that without some grounding in science, many readers would have great trouble understanding what was being written about.

There are of course some fascinating parts to the book and it is worth reading just to get a general idea of what is happening. Its clear that string theorists believe that they are, or at least were, on the cusp of further great insights into the universe. Greene avoids saying to definitely that he thinks string theory will lead directly to the Grand Theory, though he clearly thinks its our best chance. Towards the end of the book, he concludes that "[c]enturies from now, superstring theory... may have developed so far beyond our current formulation that it might be unrecognizable even to today's leading researchers". This is probably fair. Even if string theory is found to be a dead end in some respects, it will have at least helped break the reliance on a particular way of looking at the universe.

My final gripe though is that Greene leaves much of the work shrouded in fog. Time and again we are told of a scientist or a researcher developing some insight, making a breakthrough or clearing something up. Yet we're not told how this work progresses. I presume its through some form of computer modelling, yet this is rarely mentioned. It can't all be sitting there with a blank page staring at equations. Take these lines, for instance:

"What about the other forces of the standard model? How do their intrinsic strengths vary with distance? In 1973, Gross and Frank Wilczek at Peinceton, and, independently, David Politzer at Harvard, studied this question and found a surprising answer". 

Yet nothing is explained about their study. How did they do it? Later, Greene continues, the scientists "argued that this difference is actually due to the different effect that the haze of microscopic quantum activity has on each force. Their calculations showed that if this haze is penetrated by examining the forces..."

Yet this haze is a metaphor. No instruments exist that can peer that closely into quantum relations. What is the mechanism for this penetration? How exactly did the scientists proceed in their examination? The reader remains in the dark.

Sadly I feel that this book was a missed opportunity. For the layman, most of it will be incomprehensible. Some will finish it and be tempted to dismiss the whole subject as a dark art. Even for a physics student used to the rarefied ways that scientists can talk, some of this will be difficult. Sadly the book falls between two audiences and will, I suspect only be enjoyed by a small number of readers which is a great tragedy.

Related Reviews

Clegg - Infinity
Cathcart - The Fly in the Cathedral

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Alan Moorehead - The Fatal Impact

This is a beautifully written book about the terrible legacy of European exploration of the Pacific. Alan Moorehead's classic study of the impact of European arrival in Tahiti, Australia and to a lesser extent the Antarctic is a tale of death, destruction and ecological distortion.

The story begins with Captain Cook, who arrived in Tahiti in 1769. As many books, films and stories since have told, Tahiti was at first glance an island paradise. Certainly for those who had travelled there on Cook's tiny ships, underfed, sick and tired, Tahiti must have been a dream come true. The Tahitians rarely wanted for food - their island was well stocked with a rich variety of fruits, plants and animals. Work was limited and the Tahitians had attitudes to sex that were far from the sailors' morally restricted lives back home. While life there was not utopian, there were inter-tribal wars and ritual sacrifice for instance, this was certainly a far better place to live than the lives the sailors were used to.

Alan Moorehead documents the rapid decline of the island once the Europeans arrived. From the first encounters with Cook's men, the Tahitians, lacking European notions of ownership were want to try and take the amazing objects that they saw for themselves. Guns and parts of the ships would vanish and Cook had to lead a number of punitive exhibitions to retrieve these. On later trips Cook attempted to introduce European animals to the islands, distorting and changing the ecology of Tahiti. Within a few years, the highly embellished tales of the exotic life on the islands attracted more explorers. Tahiti became fashionable, and the opportunities for replenishment of ships meant it also became a pawn in inter-colonial rivalry. Those who suffered the most of course, where the Tahitians. Their isolated lives had left them unable to deal with the arrival of the Europeans. Technologically or militarily they could not compete, nor did their world-view allow them to comprehend what could happen to them. Their isolation also left their bodies unprepared for the arrival of small pox or STDs, and within 50 years of Cook's first arrival, the population had crashed form 40,000 to 9,000.

A similar tale can be told of what happened to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, when Europeans arrived. Initially, the barren and dry country was not seen as a prime destination. It was only a few decades later, when Britain sought a location of the victims of its over-zealous attitudes towards crime that Australia was considered. The 800 convicts who first arrived in Botany Bay in 1788 found a land badly suited to European notions of farming and society. Many died and many more almost perished. Once again it was the native peoples who suffered; the complexities of their hunter-gather communities over-looked by Europeans unable to see anything other than a childlike simplicity. This reached its extreme with the systematic murder and genocide directed against the people of Tasmania, hunted down like animals by European settlers.

This is a classic book. Historically it is detailed and as a work of literature it reads more like a tragic novel than a piece of academic writing. In places it is somewhat dated, Moorehead's use of language that was considered appropriate in the 1960s would not pass the proofing stage today. But the author's sympathies lie with those whose lives were destroyed by colonialism. Unlike some today, he is no apologist for Empire. His writings, particularly of the lives of the aboriginal people of Australia are fascinating because they uncover the complex nature of their lives, culture, language and customs. This would be a useful place to start for anyone wanting to explore these topics further. For Moorehead there are few happy outcomes from the exploration of the Pacific ocean. Apart from the tragedies that befell the natives of these islands, most of the sailors he mentions meet early deaths, as does Captain Cook himself (though the story is far from the tale of murder at the hands of savages that I learnt as a child).

The Fatal Impact might be considered an early example of the type of history that attempts a more detailed look at the intertwined fates of people, environment and their ecology as representatives of different modes of production meet. The story was repeated in many ways, in many places over the period described here. Its an aspect of history that deserves further study as we continue to consider the impact of our own society on the wider environment.

Further Reading

More on Alan Moorehead's fascinating life and writings can be found here. (PDF file)