If humans disappear from the face of the Earth, letting evolution take its course, what would the animals look like in 50 million years? That was the premise of the book After man: a zoology of the future published in 1981 by paleontologist Dougal Dixon. Last month, Breakdown Press published a new edition of the book.
The mythological-looking creatures illustrated in the book seem to come from a Tim Burton movie. There is the rabbuck, a rabbit-like animal that has grown to the size of a deer because it lives where there are no predators. Then, there is the reedstilt, also called Harundopes virgatus with a long, sharp snout and razor-thin legs to pluck fish from the water. And the mountainous regions will be inhabited by the groath, also called Hebecephalus montanus whose females have a horn in the shape of a pyramid on their heads to defend their young. Dixon clearly let his imagination go crazy, but he also took into account the rules of evolution and adaptation when imagining these new species.
When it came out, After Man was often portrayed in the media as a book about the extinction of mankind, writes Dixon in the new introduction. But that was a faulty interpretation, he says. The disappearance of people was just an excuse to talk about evolution: let nature go wild without humans meddling in it, and see what happens. "It is not about the extinction of man, it is not a thing loaded with fatality," says Dixon The Verge . "It shows that life goes on and it does not matter how much damage we do Earth will survive and be repopulated It's a note of positivity instead of a note of sadness"
No matter how it was received, After Man It inspired the field of so-called speculative biology, where the principles of evolution feed the creation of imaginary creatures and monsters. With the new edition, The Verge spoke with Dixon about where he got the idea for After Man how he created the animals in it and whether the book would look different if he wrote it today.
The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How was the idea of After Man ?
It's been something that had been brewing in my head for a long, long time. It goes back to the 1960s. I was watching a television show with my father. That was when the cry of the conservationists was: "Save the tiger!". My father said, "Why save the tiger? If the tiger goes extinct, something will evolve to take its place.This is how evolution works." And I thought at that moment, that's a very unconstructive attitude. With the passage of time, studying biology, I realized that this was really the case. Things are extinguished, other things evolve to take their place. Then I used to think about what animal life would look like in the future. When I was a kid, I was making cartoons of strange beasts, etc. But then he died for a moment.
It was not until the mid-1970s that I met a friend of mine that I had not seen in a long time and who was wearing the "Save the Whale" button. That woke everything up again. Save the whale? Why save the whale? If the whale is extinguished, what could evolve to take its place? I thought, I can make a book about this. This is something we can use to talk about other natural processes of evolution in a totally new way. There were many popular books on evolution at the time, but mostly they were books that looked back: the dinosaurs, the development of the horse and all that. It seemed to suggest that evolution is something that happened in the past and then stopped. That is not the case. In this way, by postulating theoretical things in the future, we can show evolution as an ongoing process.
How were all these creatures created in the book? What was the process?
The aim was to observe the different natural environments and observe what adapts particular animals to live in that environment. And if those particular animals became extinct, everything that takes their place will have the same adaptations. Like, something that lives on a grassy plain. Today, what do you gain living in a grassy plain? You get antelopes, you get horses, things with long legs running away from enemies, and long necks so they can reach the grass, and very powerful chewing mechanisms so they can eat the grass, and usually long faces, as well as being down eating grass, his eyes are still quite high and could look for danger. So, if antelopes and horses die, whatever evolves to take their place would have the same characteristics. That's the kind of procedure I used when trying to solve what would come in the future.
What has changed in our understanding of evolution since the book was published?
The basic principles are still there, but we have access to many more details, especially at the cellular level, looking at DNA. I did not have access 30 years ago when I was gathering all this. And, of course, new fossil discoveries, new discoveries of animals that were living at the time they did not know each other at that moment. Many of the dinosaurs [our understanding of] have changed. And that was the subject of my follow-up book, The New Dinosaurs . The speculation that there was, if 65 million years ago, the meteorite had been lost and the dinosaurs had continued to live and continue to evolve, what would they be like today? There he was talking about the concept of zoogeography: what animals live in what areas and in what parts of the world, and why are they different from each other? It was like After Man . He used fictitious examples to explain objective processes.
In the introduction to the new edition, you say that when you wrote After Man you decided to ignore climate change as one of the drivers of evolution. Why is that?
I was presenting some very strange animals that looked very bad and the reader might be a bit baffled by the sheer strangeness, but so I thought I could keep the background recognizable. So it was something to anchor everything. That's a totally different approach to what we did with The Future is Wild . It was a television series about 10 years ago and I was involved in that as a consultant. It was the same kind of thing, looking at what animals could evolve in the future. But in The Future is Wild the background changed constantly all the time with new glaciations and new climatic zones that do not exist at this time. It was a quite different approach.
In the introduction, you also say that "man, with his big feet and big hands, has too much influence, diverting the course of nature from anything that can be predicted." How the role of humanity has changed in the last 30 years?
It's an even more extreme version of what I was playing there. But other aspects that I had not appreciated at that time was the spread of humanity on the continents has greatly diminished our biodiversity. By carrying rats on boats to several islands, rats devastate the ecology of those islands. In the 1980s, there were major problems, such as deforestation and monocultures, overfishing and overhunting. Those were the big obvious things that I was concentrating on at that moment.
If I wrote this book today, would it look different?
Probably not, because that's all there anyway. The most important thing at this time was to get rid of human beings so that natural processes can work again and repair all the damage that has been done and that is still valid.
What do you expect readers to get from this book?  A real appreciation of the wonders of evolution and life in general. It is a book about life, about the wonders of life on Earth and about how it is a continuous process and not just something that developed in the past to take us to where we are today.