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Review: Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday
Random House, 2022. 303 pp. $29

Every once in a long while, I come across a book that takes my breath away and makes me glad I learned to read. This one tells the history of our planet through sixteen instances of extinction, as awe-inspiring and dramatic a story as there is, narrated with sheer brilliance.

Halliday, a paleobiologist who has re-created these sixteen snapshots in time based on fossil records, leaps around the globe to illustrate how climate, geography, topography, and geology have changed, supported, and often annihilated life over the past several billion years.

Let’s unpack that summary. Paleobiology combines the study of living organisms with the evidence of dead ones; until now, I didn’t even know that discipline existed. When I say leaps around the globe, for each chapter, the author has to reset where the continents have wandered, because they’re never in the same place as before, and almost never where they are now. Things change over 600 million years.

Mark A. Wilson’s photograph of a bivalve fossil from the Logan Formation, Lower Carboniferous, Ohio (courtesy Wilson44691 at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Rather than by chronology, Halliday narrates by ecological theme, as with the development of insect and bird calls, the collaboration between different species, or the advent of seasons, so each chapter presents a mind-boggling panorama. To call these snapshots does them little justice, because they appeal to several senses, not just the visual, and they’re anything but static:

By delving deep into the structure of fossils, we can now reconstruct the colours of feathers, of beetle shells, of lizard scales, and discover the diseases these animals and plants suffered. By comparing them with living creatures we can establish their interactions in food webs, the power of their bite or strength of their skull, their social structure and mating habits, and even, in rare cases, the sound of their calls. . . . The latest research has revealed vibrant and thriving communities, the remnants of real, living organisms that courted and fell sick, showed off bright feathers or flowers, called and buzzed, inhabiting worlds that obeyed the same biological principles as those of the present day.

Halliday writes science from the soul of a poet, only fitting, because of his universal themes. You can’t read Otherlands without realizing how nature is even more infinitely varied and variable than you probably thought, and just how ridiculously late we humans arrived to the party. So much happened before we got here, in such complexity, that I can’t read these stories of empires rising and falling without feeling humbled.

One of my favorite chapters recounts the era when the Mediterranean was a hard-rock basin whose surface was hotter than Death Valley. Tectonic plates closed the Straits of Gibraltar, and mountain ranges blocked off several rivers from emptying into the basin; nothing lived on the baked rock save a hardy form of microbe. The Mediterranean, which later washed the shores of the great “ancient” Western civilizations, held no water—and it gives me pause to read that this arid condition occurred on two separate occasions during our planet’s past.

If there’s a drawback to Otherlands, it’s that there’s so much in it. Even if you read only one chapter at a time, as I did, you can’t retain a fraction of what Halliday says, and often I had to pause to think. Sometimes it’s his use of metaphor that’s arresting, as when he compares a present-day freshwater crocodile to Gothic architecture. Other times, he tosses out an astonishing fact, such as why deer suffer a much lower rate of cancer than other mammals, or why we’re related to dinosaurs (it has to do with laying eggs).

Sometimes, I wanted to know more, but I got why he didn’t linger—he’s got worlds to create and destroy, and that takes pages and pages. Often, I shook my head in wonder, as with his explanation for why the colors yellow and black mark certain insects, or the ingenious adaptations of the simplest creatures that had no brains. If you’re like me, you can’t just run your eyes over that and move on; you have to think. I paused for a while over his single paragraph theorizing about the origin of life, in which he rejects the once-popular idea of lightning striking the so-called primordial soup and embraces the current reigning hypothesis, a hydrothermal vent in the ocean deep.

You can’t read about sixteen extinctions without wondering what that means regarding global warming, an issue that Halliday leaves for an epilogue. Refusing to play doomsayer or argue that we must stop exploiting the planet’s resources, he nevertheless presents a concise, authoritative description of where that exploitation has led us. Further, he stresses how people who have profited the least from that exploitation stand to lose the most from our increasingly destructive climate.

He doesn’t assume that science or engineering will solve our problem, though he does marvel at the two microscopic organisms, a fungus and a bacterium, that can break down plastic. Rather, he holds out cautious hope for international cooperation. His plea, like the rest of Otherlands, deserves a hearing.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.