The Times April 08, 2006


One small step for newt-like things


THE DISCOVERY in the Canadian Arctic of an evolutionary missing link that was among the first fish to leave the sea illuminates, according to Thursday’s Times, a chapter in the history of life on Earth that was essential to the ultimate emergence of human beings.

Interesting stuff. It’s not the missing link between Man and the apes (that’s Wayne Rooney), nor is it proof that the dinosaurs turned into birds (that’s Jade Goody), but it is, apparently, a glimpse of the great ur-moment when a fish first crawled from the briny and began the long march to becoming a man. There was even a picture of it in the paper. A turboty sort of newt-like thing, called Tiktaalik.

I looked at Tiktaalik for a while, as I rattled on the Underground between Tufnell Park and Moorgate, in the rush hour, crammed upright in a metal tube smelling of armpits, coffee and furtive fags, and I wondered, as far as I was able to wonder anything, what with the percussive hiss of iPods feeding computer-generated rhythms to nodding morons and instructions being barked by syntactically disabled announcers into tinny Tannoy systems, whether, had I been in Tiktaalik’s position, that high and far-off morning in 375,000,000BC, I would have bothered. Wouldn’t things have turned out better, after all, if he had just carried on swimming? He didn’t though. So I wonder if that morning — and I’m assuming it took two of these Tiktaalik fellows to make the decision — went something like this:



A warm morning off the Arctic coast of Canada 375 million years ago.


Tiktaalik 1: Morning.

Tiktaalik 2: Morning.

T1: Got any plans for today?

T2: Not much. You?

T1: Thought I might go for a walk.

T2: A what?

T1: A walk. It’s when you climb out of the sea onto the sand, or perhaps onto that rocky promontory over there, and waggle your flippers to provide forward propulsion on land.

T2: On land? Are you mad? There’s no air out there.

T1: Au contraire, my friend. Air is exactly what there is lots of.

T2: Well, I accidentally flipped onto a floating log one time and was out of the water for some minutes, and, let me tell you, it felt like a coelacanth had hold of my gills.

T1: There’s your mistake. You want to forget gills. Use your lungs.

T2: Lungs? I’m not sure I’ve got any.

T1: Well, if you haven’t, we can always jump back, can’t we?

T2: And supposing we can breathe? What have they got out there that we haven’t got here?

T1: Well, no sharks for one thing. Also trees, mountains, the theatre.

T2: But we never go to the theatre.

T1: It would be nice to know we could, though.

T2: And apart from all this going to the theatre, what will we do there?

T1: We’ll get jobs.

T2: I don’t want a job.

T1: Well, then, you can sign on. Look at the state of you, if you’re not eligible for gigantic mobility allowances, not to say asylum status and all the attendant benefits thereof, then I’m not a large shallow-water fish with tetrapedal intentions.

T2: And what if I miss the sea?

T1: Don’t be silly. We’ll still have a relationship with it. We’ll go for holidays there.

T2: Holidays from these jobs we’re going to have?

T1: Exactly.

T2: And how will we get there?

T1: In cars.

T2: Eh?

T1: Cars. Powered by oil that we’ll get from drilling holes in the sea.

T2: And what will we eat?

T1: We’ll eat food from supermarkets, farmed by intensive non-organic methods that are the only way one can feed as many people as we’re going to be, which disgorge all sorts of chemicals into the rivers, which end up in the sea and kill everything in it that we have not already trawled to death in our desperation to make money by selling fish.

T2: Oh. So we’re not going to want to swim in it much when we go on these holidays, are we?

T1: To be honest old chap, we won’t want to anyway because it will be full of the poisonous by-products of our colonisation of the land, which will have created the greenhouse effect, largely through the burning of the oil we’ll get by desecrating the sea we came from, causing temperatures to rise, the polar ice-caps to melt and the land to disappear entirely under water some time early in the 22nd century.

T2: So what you’re saying is that even if we do climb out onto that rocky promontory over there, and find that we can breathe, and turn into dinosaurs, and then into mammals, and then into apes, and then into preternaturally skilful young Evertonian strikers, and then into men, we will make such a mess of the planet, what with our greed for energy and lack of respect for its fragile biosystems, that we will all be under water again anyway within 400 million years, and right back where we started?”

T1: In a word, old bean, yes.

T2: Well then, no harm in giving it a go, I suppose.

T1: Exactly. We have nothing to lose but our fins.

T2: After you, then.

T1: No, no, old stick. After you.

T2: Together then.

T1: On the count of three.

T2: What, on three? Or after three?

T1: Whichever. Let’s say on three.

T2: OK.

T1: One.

T2: Two.

T1: Three . . .