Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

Reviewed by Peter Reason

A natural history, Tim Flannery tells us, encompasses both the natural and the human worlds. This book attends to three big questions: How was Europe formed? How was its extraordinary history discovered? And why did Europe become so important in the world? Flannery – palaeontologist, explorer, conservationist with a wider range of interests – is well equipped to answer these questions. I had got a lot from his earlier book, Here on Earth, a twin biography of the planet and the human race, and looked forward to this new book eagerly.

Modern Europe is scarcely a continent, more of an appendage at the western end of Eurasia. But it is identifiable through its rocks and layers of prehistoric remains, from which we have learned that it began as an island archipelago when continental plates slid across the globe. Its conception involved the geological interactions of Asia, Africa and North America. Through its history it has been a bridge between these landmasses, and so a place where evolution of life has proceeded rapidly. This book tells the story of the evolution of Europe from archipelago to landmass: its unique flora and fauna, the impact of ice ages, the impact of humans from 38,000 years ago into the future. And it tells some of the stories of the discovery of this natural history, of the chance discoveries and scientific studies that have led to our present understanding.

This is inevitably a story of the evolution and extinction of species of which readers have no direct experience. They often have obscure names that refer to where or by whom they were discovered. The timescale is boggling to the non-specialist, the terms used odd: the epochs of the Cenozoic era – the ‘Age of Mammals’ – seem to have quite scientific names, until one learns that literal translation reveals them as Palaeocene, ‘old-new’; through Miocene, ‘less-new’; to Pleistocene, ‘most-new’ and Holocene ‘whole-new’. It’s all rather difficult to get a grip on.

However, there is a profoundly important lesson in studying prehistory. Well done, it can draw our human attention to the vast time span from the formation of planet Earth to the present; and indeed, to an equally future – the solar system, at some 4.5 billion years, is estimated to be just halfway through its life span. Just imagine what evolutionary possibilities lie within another 4 billion years! I have several times experienced the Deep Time Walk conceived by Dr Stephan Harding of Schumacher College. We walk 4.5 kilometres along the Devon coast, this distance being taken as an equivalent to the age of Earth: each stride represents one million years. We walk symbolically past the formation of the moon – essential for life on Earth – through cooling of the planet and the emergence of land, the formation single-cell life, then on and on with very little change. Eventually, we reach the Cretaceous era, the point where Flannery’s book begins, just 100 million years ago, and the burgeoning forth of different life forms. It is not until the last 30 centimetres that the earliest humans arise; at 1.3 centimetres, the last Ice Age; 8 millimetres, the beginning of farming; 2 millimetres, the beginning of the modern calendar; and 0.3 millimetres, so tiny the naked eye cannot make it out on a ruler, the Industrial Revolution. The physical experience of walking through half a day, to be confronted by the tiny time-span of modern civilization, is startling; it invites a sense of humility and puts current concerns into perspective. We may notice how ridiculously short are our time horizons. (You can download the Deep Time Walk app and experience this walk yourself from https://www.deeptimewalk.org/.)

Tim Flannery’s book offers a similar perspective. He uses the device of an imaginary time machine to transport the reader to different epochs and invites us to share his own astonishment. As a young scientist, he learned of the ancient creatures that roamed the land, of the number of globally significant creatures that first evolved in Europe – even the earliest upright humans were discovered in Europe, not in Africa. He is equally fascinated by the stories of those – James Hutton, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and others – who made the discoveries that are at the foundation of our present understanding. The book covers a huge amount of material and is full of fascinating reading, intended without doubt to inspire the lay reader with the marvellous story of Europe and its significance in global prehistory. The difficulty, for this reader at least, is that the detail is too often overwhelming; Flannery has not always found storylines that hold the reader’s attention. That said, I pick out three that I found significant.

We usually think of animals as evolving in response to their environment. But animals are also important in shaping the land. During the ice ages, several species of elephant and mammoth inhabited Europe: it seems that they evolved into two groups of species, those adapted to the cold north and those in the warmer south. These northern ‘ice beasts’ helped create and maintain the largest habitat that ever existed on land – the ‘mammoth steppe’. Their huge size and long tusks enabled them to act as snow ploughs to break through the ice – it appears that some tusks have been discovered worn flat on their undersides. This enabled them to uncover grass on which to feed, but also meant that the sun warmed these uncovered spots and encouraged new growth each spring. With these megafauna long extinct, without the mammoths’ interventions the steppes now consist of a thin layer of boggy vegetation over permafrost in which nutrients are locked.

A second theme is the significance of hybrids in the origination of species: indeed, ‘the continent’s most characteristic species, including its largest wild animals, are hybrids’. We are often drawn to disparage hybrids as ‘bastards’ or ‘mongrels’, to think of pure types as somehow ‘winning’ the evolutionary contest. This shows more about our culturally derived perspectives. In her book The Symbiotic Planet biologist Lyn Margulis showed that evolution is actually more cooperative than competitive, that major evolutionary developments came about through symbiosis. Hybridization is another version of such a collaborative process, vital to evolutionary success through sharing beneficial genes. The European edible frog is a hybrid; the wisent, Europe’s largest surviving mammal, evolved through hybridization of bison and aurochs; polar bears hybridize with brown bears, the three living and three extinct species of elephant show extensive interbreeding. Species are not fixed, but permeable.

We will likely be most interested in our own prehistory as bipedal apes. The first recorded bipedal apes were European, not African, although Homo sapiens, the modern human, clearly first arose in Africa. Neanderthals pushed north into Europe some 400,000 years ago, immensely strong, pale skinned and blue eyed. They developed a technology, art and culture that belies the crude image of ‘cave men’. But it seems that compared with modern humans they occupied a narrow ecological niche – they were exclusively carnivores – and so were out-competed when Homo sapiens arrived, becoming extinct as a separate species around 39,000 years ago.

But Flannery tells us they didn’t die out, nor did modern humans colonize Europe without help. It seems from findings near the Iron Gates on the Danube that the first modern human colonisers were a single population that interbred with Neanderthals. The early generations of European humanity were hybrids of Neanderthals and sapiens, a highly varied population that drew on the greater flexibility of sapiens and the greater adaptation to cold climate and northern light of Neanderthals – including paler skin that could absorb more sunlight. In this story, while pure Homo sapiens could not replace the Neanderthals, these hybrids could. Later the proportion of Neanderthal genes was diluted by further immigration from Africa and Asia, but by then the pure Neanderthals had died out.

The last section explores the European present: the extinction of so many large mammals and the immigration of exotics from Empire; the impact of industrialisation and modern agriculture; rewilding; the possibility of recreating some of the giants of the ice ages through DNA technology. Flannery offers, briefly, the possibility that Europeans might seek to more widely recreate megafauna and import species. Given the scale of land abandonment in Europe, he argues there is a moral case for doing so, rather than expecting humans in Africa to be the only ones to live alongside large wild animals. But given the ambitious time span of the book, this fascinating possibility is only touched on.

While Europe: a Natural History is full of information and probably as up-to-date as possible, its drawback is its extraordinary scope. It flashes with occasional brilliance, as would be expected from an author of Flannery’s background and reputation. However, the storyline offered in the introduction, of Europe as an evolutionary crossroads of the world, is not articulated as fully as one would hope.

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His book In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.euand on Twitter @peterreason

Tim Flannery, Europe: A Natural History (Allen Lane, 2018). ISBN: 080-2129161, 386pp, hardback.

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