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Musings on Living Plant Fossils

In the time since Europeans realized Columbus had not, in fact, landed in India, the West has mostly referred to the Americas as the New World. Based on certain discoveries in geology, of relatively recent fossils, and of species still alive, it may be more accurate to say that the Americas are a very -old- world. The longleaf pine scrublands of the American South, for example, are straight out of the Jurassic period apart from the presence of grasses - few to no flowering trees, sparse ground cover, and a tendency to catch fire. It is these, not the lush deciduous jungles of Jurassic Park, that most resembled the places where Diplodocus and Allosaurus roamed. The Americas are also home to a curious number of horsetails, ferns, and cycads not much changed since the Palaeozoic era. In this they have much in common with the remoter parts of Africa, Australia, and New Zealand - all places where conditions we normally perceive as vanished tens of millions of years ago persist to the present day. It calls to mind the Lost World story trope first spawned by discoveries of these places by American and European explorers in the 1800s, perfected by HP Lovecraft in "At the Mountains of Madness," and brought out of retirement for a last hurrah by Michael Crichton in his dinosaur books.

I suspect the common thread here is that these places were largely untouched by the hand of human civilization until the 19th century, and that the species found exclusively in these "lost worlds," or their oceanic equivalents where nautili and coelocanths swim, is that they are less tolerant of change than others. Many of them are feeble, or fragile, or simply slower to reproduce than the hardier species common to areas longer inhabited by man.

This in turn is a nice little pocket sized proof of natural selection, and mankind's current role as the agent of that selection. There may not be a bearded Zeus or YHVH scowling down from the clouds and hurling lightning at those men who lose their favor, but it does restore a little scientific rigor to the ancient belief that man is master of this planet, and fated to remake it in his image, as well as the less ancient belief in linear progression of history (which in many cases is just Protestant Christianity with the serial numbers filed off). Both of these basically assume that civilization arose first in the Middle East and radiated outwards from there, which is suspiciously convenient for other narratives adherents of those beliefs often push. Instead, it's more likely that civilizations first arose in the now-drowned coastal lands of the late Pleistocene, and even the most ancient ruins above ground today are merely representatives of colonies, or of received traditions, from places submerged since the Younger Dryas flooding event in roughly 9600 BCE.

At any rate, the horsetails and ferns growing in my back yard give that part of it a distinctly Permian or Triassic feel, so I'm going to put some little dinosaur models in amongst them to give the neighborhood children a surprise palaeontology lesson.