Evolution by Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 2003, 766 p.

 Evolution  cover

You can’t fault Baxter for ambition. This is potentially a daunting undertaking, to tell the story of human evolution – from those first small, nocturnal mammals scrabbling about under the feet of the dinosaurs all the way through modern Homo Sapiens to its far future descendants – via incidents from the imagined lives of individuals living at possibly pivotal moments in that great chain. It wouldn’t have been an easy task for anyone.

The story is told in three sections Ancestors, Humans, and Descendants, topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue and interrupted by an Interlude between sections One and Two. There is a further episode set in the same time as these three framing passages though it is included as the last chapter in Section Two.

By its nature the narrative of Evolution tends to the episodic and that, for a novel, can be a problem. The reader is no sooner taken into the lives of our various protagonists than is brought out again, hurrying onward ever onward, usually leaping millions of years, jumping from habitat to habitat. But that, of course, is evolution. Our own experience of life, of story, is not even a blink in those terms.

The early chapters – set in the days immediately before the impact of the Chicxulub meteor (Baxter has it as a comet, with its huge “Devil’s Tail” spanning across the sky in its approach) – can at times read as the transcript of a lecture on palæobiology. Baxter has clearly done a power of research (and of course without that his story would have been much the poorer) but the way he introduces some of the creatures is usually not novelistic. Then there are the information dumping paragraphs describing the geological processes altering the animals’ environments and the Earth’s climate: necessary to the overall picture, but again not novelistic.

The influence of Richard Dawkins on the author’s vision is perhaps evident in the importance Baxter gives to sex, the passing on of genes, in the motivations and actions of his ‘characters’. There is a persistent insistence on the compartmentalisation of early primates’ brains. The beginnings of religion are described as an attempt to make sense of the forces shaping the world via a new way of thinking. The importance of food scarcities on the development of certain human behaviours is noted. By contrast the effect of the beginnings of agriculture on the health of human teeth (not good, the grit in the resultant bread from the grinding of the wheat between stones wearing them away) and of nutritional health more generally (lack of dietary diversity leading to deficiency disease, stunted growth) is almost a throwaway. But ‘civilisation’ lies this way. And its fall is due to the same impersonal forces of nature as did for the dinosaurs, though with a different mechanism. (Sixteen years on such a natural cause need not necessarily be looked to. As a species many of us still seem inclined to blindness to our own possible contribution to a mass extinction event.)

So; does it work? The book is an intellectual undertaking but not on a Stapledonian scale. A lot of the scenarios while differing in detail tend to the similar in their outline; ancestors, humans, or descendants encountering some new phenomenon, species, or climatic pressure. Baxter’s strengths as a storyteller lie in this sphere rather than in characterisation. His protagonists and those with whom they come into conflict are in this case too pragmatically designed to fulfil the niches assigned to them to fully come alive. Some of the future scenes also seemed to owe more than a little to H G Wells. (Baxter has of course since written a sequel to War of the Worlds.) As an introduction to the convoluted history of human evolution, though, this is a good starting place even if more recent discoveries have rendered it slightly out of date.

Pedant’s corner:- Written with USian spellings. Otherwise; “The smoke from the volcano” (we’ve previously been told that the smoke was due to forest fires,) “like an featherless” (a featherless,) “his clan were gone: (was gone,) “forever looking over their shoulder” (shoulders,) “was a kind of primates” (a kind of primate,) a missing full stop, auroras (aurorae,) “the laellyn group were overcome” (the group was overcome.) “But Capo’s troop were responding” (Capo’s troop was responding,) “‘one group of experimenters were’”” (one group was – but this was in dialogue,) “in the shape of their backs, skulls, trunks” (in the shapes of their backs, skulls, trunks,) epicentre (centre,) “Dust had already laid down by the fire” (lain down,) fitted (despite, earlier – and later – the USian form of the preterite, fit,) “just as his spear had flow” (had flown,) tepee-style (tepee-style,) a missing full stop, “where the sun was staring to set” (starting,) “that was why there was so many of them” (there were so many of them,) “raised to shoulder, height above the ground” (no comma after shoulder.) “It took Hononus and Athalaric many weeks reach Jordan” (It took Honorius and Athalaric many weeks to reach Jordan,) Neandertal (is this a USian spelling of Neanderthal?) A sentence lacking a name – or pronoun – as its subject (on page 671,) “for these pits were mouths. These deadly maws” (maws are not mouths. They are stomachs.)

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