Review by Sid Perkins
Most people believe “Here be dragons” appears on ancient maps as a warning of the dangers rife in unexplored or unfamiliar regions. But the phrase is found on no such maps and on only one small globe, McCarthy reveals in his book, which chronicles how real creatures got to be where they are and the significance of their movements. In fact, the phrase etched over Southeast Asia on that 16th century globe may be less a warning than a note about the range of the world’s largest lizard, a creature commonly known as the Komodo dragon.
In this fascinating and revelatory book, the author explains how certain species ended up in their present geographic locations and how studying this distribution has driven revolutions in earth and life sciences.
This study of where plants and animals live now and have lived in the past is formally known as biogeography, and this science above all else led Darwin to conceive the theory of evolution, McCarthy writes. Biogeography also lends strong support to the theory of plate tectonics, which explains the long-term drift, separation and collision of continents, processes that time after time have triggered climatic changes and stimulated the evolution of new species.
McCarthy persuasively argues that biogeography is more than just the place where evolution, plate tectonics, oceanography and climatology meet: It is a way of looking at the world that links all of these sciences together. Earth and life have evolved together, he contends, a process that has affected the distributions of ancient fossils, modern species and even the fates of human societies.
Oxford Univ. Press, 2010, 214 p., $29.95.