The fossil record acts as both a memorial to life’s spectacular possibilities and as a warning to humanity about how fast dominance can become forgotten history, according to our guest, Scottish paleobiologist Dr. Thomas Halliday. Halliday’s research investigates long-term patterns in the fossil record, particularly in mammals. In his magnificent and daring new book “Otherlands: A Journey through Earth’s Extinct Worlds,” Halliday translates cutting-edge science into vivid portraits of sixteen fossil sites and their inhabitants extending back 550 million years. We speak with Halliday about his travel guide to the history of multicellular life on Earth, how an animal fossil can be read as a character description, how entire extinct worlds are reconstructed from remnants in the Earth’s crust, and the importance of realizing that our lives and the worlds we know were preceded by hundreds of millions of years of other life and other worlds, “simultaneously fabulous yet familiar.”
“Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us,” Robert Macfarlane once wrote. “Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.” Macfarlane’s writing has done this for us and for millions of readers. It has shifted our climates for the better, deepened our sympathies, expanded our understanding of and attention to our moral and physical landscapes, and reminded us of the stakes of being alive. In this episode, Macfarlane joins us to speak about his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. In the book, Macfarlane explores how we humans shape value across expanses of “deep time” — geological time in which the units of measurement are eons and epochs, not days or years — and asks: Are we being good ancestors? “When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert,” he writes. “New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.”
In March of 2016, a group of scientists reported a startling discovery from the forests of central Japan: syntax, the property of speech that enables it to express limitless meanings, was not unique to human languages. It had been observed in the vocal system of a bird. In her acclaimed new novel The Study of Animal Languages, published last month by Viking-Penguin and written by When We Talk About Animals co-host Lindsay Stern, a biologist named Prue conducts a similar experiment in her laboratory at a New England liberal arts college. Like the actual study, hers is touted as evidence that animals have yet another capacity we assumed made us unique. But in a speech at the heart of the book, where Prue announces her findings, she suggests that the study teaches us more about ourselves than it does about the animal in question. We speak with Lindsay about the limitations of conscience, the spiritual costs of the Anthropocene, and fiction’s capacity to explore the motives behind our search for animal minds.