Fortey, Richard (Alan) 1946-
FORTEY, Richard (Alan) 1946-
PERSONAL: Born February 15, 1946, in London, England; son of Frank (a fisher) and Margaret (Wilshin) Fortey; married Bridget Thomas, October 3, 1969 (divorced, 1974); married Jacqueline Francis (an editor), June 21, 1978; children: Dominic, Rebecca, Julia. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: Cambridge University, B.A., 1968, M.A., 1970, Ph.D., 1971. Politics: "Leftish Liberal." Hobbies and other interests: Mycology, poetry, beer.
ADDRESSES: Home—48 St. Andrew's Rd., Henley on Thames, Oxon RG9 1JD, England. Offıce—Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BDF, England. Agent—David Godwin Associates, Goodwin's Court, St. Martin's Lane, London W1, England. E-mail— [email protected]
CAREER: Paleontologist and author. Natural History Museum, London, England, research fellow, 1970-77, became principal scientific officer and then merit researcher, 1978—.
MEMBER: Palaeontological Association (past president), Geological Society of London (vice president).
AWARDS, HONORS: D.Sc., Cambridge University, 1986; selection as natural-world book of the year, 1993, for The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past; fellow, Royal Society of London, 1997; Life: An Unauthorized Biography was named among the books of the year, New York Times, 1998; Lewis Thomas Prize, 2003.
Fossils: The Key to the Past, Van Nostrand (New York, NY), 1982.
The Dinosaurs' Alphabet (for children), illustrated by John Rogan, Barron's (New York, NY), 1990.
The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the GeologicalPast, J. Cape (London, England), 1993.
Life: An Unauthorized Biography, HarperCollins (London, England), 1997, published as Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with R. H. Thomas) Arthropod Relationships, Chapman & Hall (London, England), 1998.
Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
The Earth: An Intimate History, HarperCollins (London, England), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: A paleontologist with the Natural History Museum in London, Richard Fortey has written books for general readers on fossils, geological history, and the origins of life on earth. In these works, Fortey has so successfully conveyed the excitement of scientific discovery that Chet Raymo, in the Boston Globe, called him "a worthy successor to such Victorian masters of natural-history writing as Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall."
Fortey's first book, Fossils: The Key to the Past, was welcomed as an excellent introduction to the subject for both adult and juvenile audiences. A Booklist reviewer noted that Fortey neither oversimplifies his material nor relies on jargon in this book, making it a "complete, approachable introduction." Library Journal contributor Walter P. Coombs, Jr. also deemed the book an outstanding overview for a popular audience.
Fortey's children's book, The Dinosaurs' Alphabet, is a collection of short poems linking dinosaurs to letters of the alphabet. School Library Journal contributor Cathryn A. Camper remarked that, while Fortey incorporates factual information in his rhymes, the collection of verses is "less than memorable."
In the volume The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past, Fortey combines his expertise in paleontology with an understanding of the development of human societies. Focusing on the British Isles, Fortey explains millions of years of geological history and shows how facts of earth science contributed to the growth of flora and fauna and to the development of such human endeavors as agriculture, mining, and even manufacturing. Fortey argues, for example, that Permian and Triassic rock corridors in the vales are natural traffic routes that humans exploited with canals, and that English wool towns sprang up near natural deposits of montmorillonite, a mineral that can be used to remove natural grease from wool. The book contains several other examples of such connections.
The Hidden Landscape also received favorable reviews. Laura Garwin, in Nature, observed that, though the book focuses on Britain, it is more generally "about how an appreciation of geology and its hidden connections can enrich one's experience of life in exactly the same way as can an understanding of art or music." A contributor to the New Scientist appreciated the book's "sense of the joy in discovery," a quality also noted by Observer reviewer Jonathan Keates. Commenting favorably on the fact that Fortey "avoids anything like misty-eyed environmental piety or 'Let's-Discover-Fossils' gung-ho," Keates concluded that "this is a colossally romantic book, imbued with its author's deep sensitivity to shifting atmospheres, his overwhelming passion for England, Wales and Scotland as living bodies . . . and his contagiously personal view of his subject."
Life: An Unauthorized Biography, Fortey's exploration of evolutionary history, has also elicited praise from critics. Andrew H. Knoll, in Nature, deemed it "the best account of life's history that I know, an engaging narrative that succeeds as literature as well as science." Knoll especially appreciated the way Fortey combines his scientific expertise with his sense of "paleontology as a way of knowing, illustrated honestly, and sometimes hilariously, by scenes from the life of [the author himself]." New Scientist reviewer Ted Nield, who ventured that the book would surpass the acclaim of The Hidden Landscape, also praised Fortey's blending of science with personal narrative and his allusions to literature and music. Nield noted that Fortey's position on the role of accidents in evolutionary development differs from theories put forth by biologist Stephen Jay Gould, but in degree rather than fundamentals. Fortey offers "no amazing revolutionary interpretations," Nield concluded, but "meat-and-potatoes palaeo . . . the way only Fortey, it seems, can write it." And Jerry A. Coyne, in the New York Times Book Review, assessed Fortey's argument as "a much-needed correction to Stephen Jay Gould's famous conclusions about the creatures of the Burgess Shale." Coyne labeled "dubious" Fortey's claims that humankind's consciousness and ability to deceive fellow members of our species are what distinguishes us from other animals. While Coyne pointed out that the book lacks some of the intellectual rigor of similar books by the likes of Gould or Richard Dawkins, and is sometimes marred by "overheated prose," he concluded that Life is worth reading by anyone with even a slight interest in the subject. An Economist contributor considered Life an "impressive synthesis of evolution" that had some omissions—in particular, on Gould's disputed theory of "punctuated equilibrium" and on the evolution of the role of sex in behavior. But the reviewer acknowledged that the author is "good at showing that the failures of the great scientists he colourfully portrays are much the same as the failures of anybody else" and admired Fortey's refusal to mock outdated scientific thinking.
Fortey once told CA: "My intentions are possibly rather different from science writers like Gould and Dawkins. I wish to charm and cajole readers into sharing the same delight with natural history—and particularly palaeontology—that has sustained me for a lifetime. Naturally, I have opinions, but my books are not written primarily to advance those opinions."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 1, 1983, review of Fossils: The Key to the Past, p. 704.
Boston Globe, April 12, 1998, article by Chet Raymo,
Economist, September 6, 1997, review of Life, p. S13.
Junior Bookshelf, August, 1980, p. 175.
Library Journal, November 15, 1982, Walter P. Coombs, Jr., review of Fossils, p. 2182.
Nature, March 24, 1994, Laura Garwin, review of TheHidden Language: A Journey into the Geological Past, pp. 366-367; August 21, 1997, Andrew H. Knoll, review of Life: An Unauthorized Biography, pp. 731-732.
New Scientist, February 19, 1994, review of The Hidden Landscape, p. 42; August 2, 1997, Ted Nield, review of Life, pp. 42-43.
New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1998, Jerry A. Coyne, review of Life, p. 11.
Observer, January, 1994, Jonathan Keates, review of The Hidden Landscape.
Publishers Weekly, March 2, 1998, p. 52.
School Library Journal, April, 1991, Cathryn A. Camer, review of The Dinosaurs' Alphabet, p. 110.