The Curmudgeon


Sunday, April 17, 2005

The World Without Humanity

Some little time ago, a zoologist named Dougal Dixon produced a book called After Man, a portrait of life on earth fifty million years after the extinction of the human race. Starting with a map of the continents, as altered over that period by the shifting of tectonic plates, Dixon proceeded to apply evolutionary principles with prodigious but highly disciplined imagination.

Species which had been dependent on humanity, such as dogs, horses and so forth, naturally joined Homo sapiens in the oblivion to which that insanely destructive species consigned itself and so many others. However, the ecosphere rapidly recovered from the chaotic blip of human history, and the gaps left by extinct species were quickly filled by others.

Rats, a highly efficient species, evolved into the main carnivores, their bodies growing doglike in size and shape. A huge creature called a vortex, which developed, as I recall, from penguins, appeared to fill the ecological gap left by the exterminated whales. A marsh-dwelling herbivore called a reedstilt has loose fronds of skin on its lower legs; as it stands in shallow water and hunts fish, the camouflaging fronds wave gently in the current like the leaves of underwater plants.

Some of Dixon's new species seem to have evolved with their tongue in their cheek. A type of rodent bears its young high up in the mountains; when the young mature, they find more plentiful food supplies by jumping off the mountains and slowing their descent with a thick parasol of hairs at the end of their tails; naturally, the name of the species is parashrew. The archipelago of Batavia is dominated by animals which have evolved from bats, including the delightful night stalker, a huge, flightless, eyeless predator which walks on its forelimbs and tears its prey to pieces with elongated hind limbs that reach forward over its shoulders.

A few years after After Man, Dixon produced a second, equally brilliant book, set in the present day. However, the premise of The New Dinosaurs is that the dinosaurs' extinction did not take place, and that the great lizards have continued to evolve through the sixty-five million years which separate them from the present. Since, in these circumstances, the mammals do not evolve beyond the tree-shrew stage, humanity has no place in this world, either; although at the end Dixon speculates on the possibility of a humanoid creature evolving among the dinosaurs.

Both After Man and The New Dinosaurs are beautifully presented and stunningly illustrated with colour pictures of their remarkable protagonists; all species are equipped with Latin names and their evolutionary peculiarities are clearly delineated in careful line diagrams. These books are two of the most extraordinary works of science fiction ever produced.


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