Richard Fortey: A brief history of everything

The award-winning palaeontologist Richard Fortey writes natural history with a twist. Variety, he tells Marek Kohn, is the spice - and grandeur - of life
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The Independent Culture

Richard Fortey breezes down an arcade of ichthyosaurs, fossils hung like bas-reliefs upon the walls, and pauses at the end of the hall. He produces a bunch of keys - proper janitorial keys like a pocketful of change, not some discreet little toothpick or slender smart-card - and opens the door that leads behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum.

Here is the invisible museum, full of blank-faced cupboards packed from head to foot with drawers of fossils, where the science is done. Fortey has spent his working life here, as, in his words, "a shop-floor scientist". He arrives each day, works on his trilobites and other palaeontological interests, and leaves in the evening to catch the train back to Henley-on-Thames.

Except, that is, when he flies off on the expeditions that have taken him to deserts, volcanoes, mountains, islands tropical and temperate, and diverse other dramatic corners of the natural world. He added considerably to the stamps in his geological passport doing the fieldwork for his new book, The Earth: an Intimate History (HarperCollins, £25).

Its title follows neatly from that of one of his earlier books, Life: an Unauthorised Biography. The adjective is more than an ironic reference to a different publishing genre, sending out a reassuring signal that this is not another forbidding science tome. It refers to intimate details and to intimate connections between different aspects of the world. "I've turned the telescope round," he explains. "I'm looking at large issues, big things, and the Earth, but from the point of view of how it affects the intimate details of the landscape, or one person's life story, or one particular instrument; or how various pairs of eyes have looked on the same scene, and interpreted what they saw in different ways.

"What I sought were places where the geology did a lot, both in terms of the history [and advancement] of the subject and what you see in front of your eyes," he says. "So the Bay of Naples was where the subject began, and it's also where there have been dramatic geological events, where all the great names in geology have gone and put their stamp on the area, where you can still walk through a typical Italian town into a still-active volcano with steam hissing out of vents. So it's got everything, really."

In the book, Fortey cites Pliny the Younger's account of the eruption of Vesuvius, AD79 as "probably the first clear and objective description of a geological phenomenon", then notes how Charles Lyell used a picture of the local Temple of Serapis for the frontispiece of his 1830 Principles of Geology, a book which had a momentous influence on Darwin's ideas about evolution. Odysseus, Goethe and the founder of computing, Charles Babbage, are among the other persons and details that Fortey works in before he tears himself away from the Bay.

This opening chapter underlines what has already become clear from Fortey's earlier books: that the more complicated the world seems to be, the happier he is. At the end of The Origin of Species, Darwin invited his readers to "contemplate an entangled bank", full of varieties of life, all interdependent, and affirmed the "grandeur in this view of life". This is Fortey's vision, too, and it is what makes him tick.

Although in The Earth he is dealing with rocks and history rather than organisms, I say, his view of the earth is fundamentally that of the natural historian, entranced by variety, complexity and interconnections. "Yes, that is absolutely right," he agrees. "This place is probably the only place that would have employed somebody like me, who's an old-fashioned natural historian. I feel I come from an ancestry that goes back to Gilbert White," he adds, referring to the 18th-century author of The Natural History of Selborne. Although he grew up in Ealing rather than Dorset, his birthright was a place in the great tradition of English natural history, passed from father to son: a hobby, a sport and a passion.

"My father was a fantastic fisherman; he lived for fly-fishing, and he was also a very good naturalist, because fly-fishermen have to be. So what he gave me, I think, was an awareness of the interconnectedness of things, the evening rise [of insects] on the River Kennet, and the sounds of the birds, and tying the fly. We used to go out there every weekend. Most of my childhood was spent wandering round on riverbanks."

Fortey's boyhood love of nature acquired a scientific bent when he read a collection of essays entitled Possible Worlds, by the biologist JBS Haldane, probably the greatest science populariser of his day. "After I'd read that book, I thought: 'What I think I want to be is a scientist.' I didn't really know what a scientist was, but I wanted to be someone like that." He isn't the only scientist to owe his career to Haldane's essays, so in this respect, too, he has followed a familiar path. And there was also a third figure - of the type that often features in the making of a British scientist - who influenced Fortey's choice of career: an inspirational teacher.

He taught geology, which led the young Fortey to experience the "fever", as he puts it in his distinctly autobiographical Trilobite!, of discovering fossils. He found his first trilobite, segmented, shielded, dead half a billion years, and the die was cast.

The other thing which speaks out eloquently from every page of Fortey's science books is that he writes for love of writing. He progressed smoothly into a career as a student of trilobites, but was still trying to get his poetry published in the university magazine. Later on, he says, "you get into the conventions of writing scientific papers, which is quite exciting to start with. You start getting citations, and you enter your first scientific phrase, and all that kind of thing. But I suppose always nagging away at me was the feeling that I really should be doing some writing."

At one stage he adopted pseudonyms (Roderick Masters, WC Bindweed) and channelled his literary urges into humourous books. He did not find his métier, however, until the 1990s, when he was commissioned to write The Hidden Landscape. A book about the geology of Britain, it was a precursor to The Earth, and a successor in spirit to the celebrated A Land, by the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes.

Scientists are in the business of reducing ambiguity, which leaves them disinclined to play with words, but Fortey delights in the resonances and interweavings of phrases. His view of literature matches his view of nature: he loves an entangled bank. He recalls reading an essay by Aldous Huxley which drew a "rather pompous" distinction between the "man of science" and the "man of letters". "I thought, well, I know what he means, but I'd very much like to erase that distinction by example if I possibly could. So I've used some novelistic tricks in all my books, quite consciously, I suppose - particularly use of imagery, which is something I hope I've made a little my own." The result is very different in character from Haldane's writing, and also, despite a similar love of entangled literary banks, from his fellow palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whose writing Fortey admired but found "overly rich, like fruitcake".

In person, Fortey is as genial and enthusiastic as in his books. He is notably relaxed when it comes to scientific debates, though he can be unblinkingly clinical when he reviews a book he finds wanting. "I don't think I have any malice in me at all," he says - and that is the impression he gives in his reviews, which is precisely why his criticisms are so effective.

As a narrator, he is admirably circumspect. Despite the mileage he has notched up in his travels and the tales he could doubtless tell, his stories are largely free from anecdotes about ghastly hotels and cross-cultural gaffes. "I'm actually rather self-effacing by nature. There are one or two science writers who seem to put themselves firmly at the centre of what they're describing. They're not a pair of eyes, or John Updike's famous cat in the corner. I'd like to think I was more of a cat in the corner than a travelling ego."

Would he put that down to his personality, I ask, or to his ethos as a scientist? "I think I'm more of a quiet observer, and that probably applies to the science I do. I won't say it's a backwater, but it's a relatively quiet discipline where one person, working on their own, can still make a contribution. And that's actually rather like being a novelist or writing my kind of book. It lends itself to a careful and perhaps slightly self-effacing endeavour."

So what, actually, does he do all day? Fortey hands over a couple of thick bound volumes, containing his published papers, and fishes out a recent reprint article from the prestigious journal Science. A photograph shows a fossil trilobite with two extraordinary columns for eyes; the text describes how Fortey and his collaborator showed that the creature, 400 million years old, had evolved eyeshades. "I managed to work out how it worked," he says proudly, explaining that the structures had shielded out sunlight from above, to prevent interference with the animal's view of the sea floor. "It's a neat little thing. Quite fun.' But his delight in natural design makes clear that for him it is more than that. It is alive.

Biography: Richard Fortey

Professor Richard Fortey, a palaeontologist, studies trilobites and other fossils at the Natural History Museum in London. His new book is The Earth: an Intimate History (HarperCollins); his other works include The Hidden Landscape, named as Natural World Book of the Year in 1993; Life: an Unauthorised Biography, shortlisted for the Rhone Poulenc science books prize in 1998; and Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, shortlisted for the 2001 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and won the Rockefeller Foundation's Lewis Thomas Prize for science writing last year. Aged 58, Richard Fortey is married, has three children and lives in Henley-on-Thames.

Marek Kohn's 'A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the British Imagination' will be published by Faber in September