Non-Fiction Reviews

The Future is Wild

(2002) Dougal Dixon and John Adams, Act-Two, 19.99/$35.00, hrdbk, 160 pp, ISBN 1-552-297724-2

Published December 2002 and based on the 2004 TV documentary series, The Future is Wild came to us via a circuitous route and the Institute of Biology, for whom a much shortened version of this review appears in the journal Biologist. The TV series is to be aired this autumn (2004). Dougal Dixon is, of course, well known for his artistic renditions of the late 1980s/early '90s of how the dinosaurs might have evolved had not the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) extinction taken place. He has once again dazzled us with his skill and imagination as to how life on Earth might evolve over the next 200 million years assuming humans remove themselves from the picture. The book is lavishly illustrated. I say his imagination but he was assisted with researchers from Act-Two and a baker's dozen of consultants from leading centres of scientific excellence in the UK and US (plus one from Canada).

To give you an idea of how far into the future 200 million years is, the book begins by placing it and where we are against a historical context. (200 million years into the past sees the dawn of the age of the dinosaurs among the newly established (then only 50-75 million years older still) coniferous forests that added to the existing fern forests.) Back then much of the Earth's land was still clumped together (or close together) as the then single super continent (Pangea) was breaking up. The book's first section explains plate tectonics and the cycles of life such as trophic levels (plant, herbivore and carnivore) and cycling (such as water). This is all done briefly and so does not bore, though does (obviously) miss out on some of the subtleties (which, as I will show, can be important). The rest of the chapters are divided among three groupings each respectively looking at: five million years into the future, 100 million years, and 200 million years into the future.

The five million years section deals with an ice age. This is a logical thing to do, although the book does not explain that we are already smack in the middle of an ice age (the Quaternary ice age) that has short (a few thousand years) warm (interglacial) and long (100 thousand years) cold spells (glacials). (Our current warm interglacial is known as the Holocene in case there are any geological pedants concerned with my use of Quaternary.) However The Future is Wild ignores the glacial/interglacial cycles and does the next best thing assuming that there was just one glacial spanning a few million years, and how this would affect likely evolution. Actually the book does not do this, though that is what the reader assumes. Instead it looks at the evolutionary opportunities that would exist and might have been exploited had not us humans so reduced current biodiversity out of which (through speciation) these new species might have sprang. This is subtle but important point for we humans are the cause of a mass extinction unlike any other on Earth. That our anthropogenic (human generated) extinction is not an asteroidal or volcanic bang, but a many thousand year whimper, does not make it any the less significant. In fact what makes it worse is that we have fragmented (with suburbia and farms) much of the temperate terrestrial habitat making it impossible for many species to migrate and so they die. Also we have greatly reduced tropic forest biomes worldwide, not to mention that we are contaminating many continental biogeographic systems with introductions of alien species. In short in next few million years there wont be the ancestral stock from which new species will arise in five million years time. (Though we might have left as an inheritance certain domestic and gene modified species instead but I must not get all science fictional on you.) The Future is Wild is primarily a fauna exploration rather than a botanical one (which is fine by me), and the animals portrayed in this section are as every bit as different as those that existed 5 million years ago (mammoths, sabre tooth tigers etc). So we are given babookaris (troupe monkeys with some tool use), gannet whales (birds to seal types) and mustelids (solitary carnivores descended from badgers and stoats). The section ends with an explanation as to how the ice age concludes. The Future is Wild team have gone the volcanic carbon dioxide route which is superficially fair enough as that is how we go out of Snowball Earth I and II (2.2 billion and 590 million years ago respectively). But a glacial Earth is not a snowball Earth. (I am tempted to say that there is a world of difference.) Besides which a volcanic pulse of carbon dioxide warming the Earth out of a glacial would in itself not be enough to end the current Milankovitch pace-makered ice age. (Although we are likely to see such a pulse (and an initial dust cooling) from a super volcano eruption (such as Yellowstone) well before five million years and while if this happened soon it would certainly have a major impact on our global society (possibly a billion plus starving?) it will not completely wipe out humans or result in a major mass extinction nor will it halt the current Quaternary glacial-interglacial cycle, if only because the last two eruptions did not. But I suspect that had the TV producers explained how the ice age really will end (through changes in oceanic circulation), they would have had to explain palaeo-oceanography and Milankovitch theory at the very least and this would have taken a programme in itself. In short, I can fully understand the short cut.

The next section takes us 100 million years into the future. It is (they say) a hot house Earth with oceans 330 feet (100 metres) higher than today due to the melting of the Antarctica and Greenland ice caps. (Which is why dear reader I live above 50 metres which is ample altitude to allow for any West Antarctic ice sheet collapse and other ultra worse-case sea-level scenario we can expect in a century of absolutely worse case global warming. Anyone beneath 5 metres (and that's roughly scores of millions globally) expecting their home to survive what is currently thought of (ho ho) a low-probability, worse case scenario over the next couple of decades would do well to consider moving like right now.) The species here are really quite exotic and the authors look at life in: the ocean, the giant Bengal swamp, the Antarctic forest, and a new Himalayan like Australian/Asian high plateau. Of note is a new giant reptile bigger than any dinosaur, and octopuses (cephalopods) return to the land. (As it happens I am well into Molluscs which are my favourite phylum and cephalopods are my favourite class: so if you ever want me to walk out of a restaurant (leaving you to pay the bill) just order squid.) This cephalopod return to land paves the way for the final section and is interesting albeit most unlikely for reasons with which I will not bore you. One bit I found rather debatable is that it is most strongly alluded to (though not actually said) that the Bengal swamp area will generate coal, and indeed a higher atmospheric oxygen level is noted (which you would get with the mass burial of carbon to form a coal field). Well I am not so sure. Yes the Carboniferous 350 million years ago did have the Pangean super-continent and there were swamps fuelled with water periodically running off of this huge land area. But this periodism was Milankovitch (tiny Earth wobbles and other orbital considerations) driven and amplified by a glacial-interglacial cycle with an icecap on the part of Pangea close to the south pole which in turn caused repeated rises and falls in sea level. Conversely, the Pangea II of the future that was beginning to be formed covers the tropics and temperate zones and land is nowhere near the poles, so we would not get such sea level fluctuations. Nor alternating millennia of such high global rainfall and periods where it is low. Also we believe that the Carboniferous carbon burial was further enhanced due to the rise of vascular plants and their structural molecules, like lignin, for which detrivore (breakdown) systems had not yet arisen and so the carbon remained locked up to turn into coal. This would not happen in the future as we now have the detrivore systems. So a bit of a problem here even though I myself am not entirely convinced by the current real-science Carboniferous lignin story. The section ends with a volcanic Declan traps type mass extinction (like that 251 million years ago). This is not unrealistic as it is likely that such an extinction would happen sometime on this timescale due to tectonic vagaries.

The final clutch of chapters looks at life 200 million years in the future (though it might equally be 250 or even 300 million years). 200 million years hence and the authors see all the continents coming together again to form a new super-continent, Pangea II. Its chapters looks at the global ocean (after all one continent means one ocean), the vast central desert rain shadow desert, and the northern forest. Our friends the molluscs have diversified and cephalopods become the dominant intelligence (to the level of chimpanzees though higher possibilities are hinted). I have to say I found the portrayal of these 'squibbons' not particularly convincing but part of me says that this could be intellectual myopea on my part even though another part suggests that the authors have significantly departed from the form and function rule. Nonetheless such debate is fun.

Mistakes? Most (but not all) of my academic problems with the book relate to the over-simplification of biosphere science. But there are a couple of complete errors. For example in The Future is Wild, earthworms are stated as being polychaetes (page 118). But though earthworms like polychaetes are Annelids, they are in fact oligochaete Annelids. Though I find such errors irritating, I can forgive them and for most people it simply will not matter. What I do find a little reprehensible is their ignoring the deep carbon cycle problem and biosphere homeostasis given the increase in solar radiation (due to the Sun's own evolution) on the scale of hundreds of millions of years. (For biologists I am talking about C4 plants and their evolutionary heritage (ungulate co-evolution and even that of the Hominoidea including us humans).) This really is a major lapse which any of the consultants with biosphere expertise should have picked up. Tut tut.

The Future is Wild is a tremendously entertaining and stimulating book which biologists will undoubtedly delight in agreeing with some of its contents, while disagreeing with others; and probably with equal tenacity. Above all it makes for an interesting introduction to elementary biosphere science and is a classic example of how SF tropes (future gazing, alternate evolutions, and even implicitly time travel etc.) can be educational. Indeed the book begs accompanying teachers notes. For many years I have thought that there really needs to be an award for promulgating science through SF and non-fiction SF perspectives, much like there is Britain's annual popular science award (nominally administered by the Royal Society's COPUS committee if memory serves). We simply do not have anything like this even though Scotty has inspired a generation of youngsters to study engineering (according to a survey of engineer graduates), and the 'sci fi' cinema and TV of the late 1970s and early 1980s encouraged a generation of physicists (if the surveys of UK and US graduates are to be believed). The Natural History Museum, Kensington, London, has regularly embraced SF to enhance attendance with the most famous instance being using Jurassic Park as an attractor. Heck, Soylent Green and Make Room, Make Room were a pivotal influence on my choice of degree (poor Harry). So in my mind an award for science in SF is long over due. If we had one last year (2003) then I'd most certainly put The Future is Wild on the short list and somewhere near the top.

Jonathan Cowie

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