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Review of OTHERLANDS
A journey to the lives of earth’s past
Our earth has changed radically over its 4.5 billion year history; and life changed from tiny cells to an extraordinarily diverse world of life forms over the past 550 million years. Life – and its evolution – is what makes our planet so fascinating. But it’s difficult for us to really understand what life was like even a few thousand years ago let alone millions of years ago.
Enter, Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday, who takes you on a 550 million year from the present time all the way back to the Ediacaran period when the world and its inhabitants were scarcely recognizable. Since then, evolution and geology have worked their magic to produce the world we have today – and it continues to change.
Otherlands takes a unique approach to deep time, not quite like other books I’ve read that journey to other worlds on our planet. Rather than following only the change of animals or focusing on specific geological periods brodaly, Halliday instead weaves together geology, biology, and creativity to immerse the reader in what that world was like to those living in it.
Each chapter is a mini story about a particular place on earth at a particular place in time during our history. He begins close to the present, 20,000 years ago during the thaw of the last glacial maxima in present day Alaska, through human origins in present day Kenya around 4 million years ago, all the way back to present day South Africa to witness the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago and all the way to present day Australia during the elusive Ediacaran period 550 million years ago when life first emerged.
Throughout the book you learn about how animals evolved, how they interacted, and the challenges they faced in their environments, from cells detecting the first light to plants evolving new ways to photosynthesize, and primates regaining color vision. One of my favorite tidbits from Otherlands was learning that ocean reefs have gone through vast periods of being built from totally different animals. Before coral, it was glass sponges that formed vast reefs housing thriving communities of ocean dwellers.
Halliday provides a unique, and more broadly accessible, view into earth’s deep history – I can see why this is a best seller! I do have one gripe with the book, however. I really disliked that it went from present time backwards in deep time. It’s an unnatural way to think about time (to me at least) and in each chapter he tended to discuss a period in time but move forward within that period. So then when you got to the end of the chapter all your evolutionary progress felt lost as you had to readjust to where you were at the beginning of the chapter to seamlessly move to the next chapter. It felt harder than it needed to be. But overall, this was a fascinating book that I know many will enjoy.
Published: February 2022
Publisher: Random House
Format: Paperback courtesy of Random House
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
A Story of Us: A New Look at Human Evolution by Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson (2021)
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World by Steve Brusatte (2018)
How the Mountains Grew: A New Geological History of North America by John Dvorak (2022) | Read my review
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