Humans and all other living things that occupy the planet today are the product of 4.6 billion years of evolution on Earth
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Where are we from? This is a great question that has preoccupied philosophers, thinkers and scientists for thousands of years. The short answer is that humans are a product of 4.6 billion years of evolution on Earth, just like all other living things that occupy the planet today.
A (very) brief history of life on Earth: 4.6 billion years in 12 concise chapters (Pan Macmillan, 2021 / Picador, 2022: Amazon US / Amazon UK), by senior Nature science editor and novelist, Henry Gee, is a brief summary of the entire history of everything – from the big bang, the formation of the solar system and the birth of the earth, from microbial life, to you and me, and even to the end of all life on earth. In this book, Dr. Gee presents a compelling exploration of this enduring “where did we come from” question by combining findings from various scientific disciplines into a cohesive narrative through beautifully evocative and witty prose.
Despite the billions of years covered in this book, the chapters are surprisingly short, consisting of even shorter bits of interesting information, sometimes punctuated by amusing observations or descriptions. Dr. Gee begins by sharing what we’ve gathered so far about the birth of the planet and its structure to the unexpectedly rapid appearance of life, from the first movements of slimy membranes lodged in rock cracks, which then gave rise to distinct unicellular microbes, to the advent of cellular cooperation and specialization, the appearance of multicellular life and its evolution into a plethora of increasingly complex and specialized forms. The author provides brief, and sometimes surprising, glimpses into the life of various plants and animals from the earliest moments in evolutionary history to the present day.
Latin names for many of these past creatures may overwhelm some readers, but Dr. Gee’s vivid descriptions of these plants and animals provide fascinating mental images of these creatures that lived so long ago, such as the terrestrial amphibian, eryops, who looked like a bullfrog who introduced himself as an alligator. If it had wheels it would have been an armored personnel carrier. With teeth” (p. 23) and Lystrosaurusprobably the most successful vertebrate ever: “with the body of a pig, the uncompromising attitude to food of a golden retriever and the head of an electric can opener, Lystrosaurus was the animal equivalent of an outburst of weed at a bomb site.” (p.89).
By the time Dr. Gee discusses what we know about hominin evolution, most readers will be more familiar again, with the bonus of having fewer names to keep track of. But this chapter held some surprises for me: While I was aware that there was a bottleneck in human evolution that saw the entire species near extinction at least several times, I was surprised to learn that a small group clung to life for decades . trapped for thousands of years in an African wetland that was a veritable ‘Garden of Eden’, surrounded by harsh deserts. It was only after the global climate mildened that our ancient human ancestors were able to leave and migrate outward about 130,000 years ago, before these wetlands eventually dried out and became the Makgadikgadi Pan, one of the world’s largest salt pans, located in the middle of the dry savanna of northeastern Botswana. Ironically, this former lake is now a salt desert that supports no life more complex than crusts of cyanobacteria, a throwback to the earliest days of life on Earth.
Speculating about the future of life on Earth, Dr. Gee proposes an interesting idea of how all life on this planet could eventually become extinct. Just as individuals age and eventually die, so do species and even entire planets. On the one hand, it is not possible to predict the future, but Dr. Gee’s idea of the universality of aging makes it understandable and strangely satisfying. According to Dr Gee, watching all life flip away can be like watching a movie in reverse, where complexity diminishes and the ability to evolve into new species diminishes until there is nothing left alive when even the planet itself dies .
Of course this is pure speculation. There is no evidence to support Dr. Gee as anything other than particularly interesting sci-fi, but I’ve heard this idea before. (It is a pity that Dr. Gee does not state clearly anywhere in the text of his book, as he does in his endnotes, that “I am telling this story more as a story than a scientific exercise, some of the things I will say that they have more evidence than others.’)
One thing that would have improved the book is a few drawings – even just one on the first page of each chapter.
Overall, this fast-paced and readable book is beautifully written, with little slivers of whimsical poetry peeking through the scholarly fair. The book itself contains 3 pages of additional books for the interested reader to study, along with 61 pages of quotes and notes – at least some of these notes were quite funny and would have served the reader better if they had been footnotes instead .
I think everyone will enjoy this book, especially those who read the most on a speeding train or unwieldy bus, and students of cosmology, geology, zoology or biology will learn a lot and the evocative prose will please even the most meticulous of readers.
A (very) brief history of life on Earth is shortlisted for the 2022 Royal Society Science Book Prize.
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