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where did we come from This is a big question that has kept philosophers, thinkers, and scientists busy for thousands of years. The short answer is that humans are the product of 4.6 billion years of evolution on Earth, as are all other organisms that occupy the planet today.
A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pythian Chapters (Pan Macmillan, 2021 / Picador, 2022: Amazon US / Amazon UK), for adults nature Science editor and novelist Henry G. is a brief summary of the complete history of everything–from the Big Bang, the formation of the solar system and the birth of Earth, from microbial life, to you and me, to the end of all life on Earth. In this book, Dr. Gee provides an engaging exploration of this perennial “Where did we come from” question by bringing together findings from a variety of scientific disciplines into a cohesive story using evocative and witty prose.
Despite the billions of years this book covers, its chapters are surprisingly short, consisting of still shorter grains of interesting information interspersed occasionally with amusing notes or descriptions. Dr. G begins by sharing what we’ve gathered together so far about planet birth and structure to the unexpectedly rapid emergence of life, from the first movements of viscous membranes hidden within cracks in rock, which then gave rise to a single distinct cell. microbes, led to the emergence of cellular cooperation and specialization, the emergence of multicellular life, and its evolution into a multitude of increasingly complex and specialized forms. The author provides brief, and sometimes surprising, glimpses into the lives of various plants and animals from the earliest points in evolutionary history to the present day.
The Latin names of many of these earlier creatures may overwhelm some readers, but Dr. G’s vivid descriptions of these plants and animals provide fascinating mental pictures of these creatures that lived long ago, such as the land-dwelling amphibians, ereops, “which looked like a frog imagining itself as a crocodile. If it had wheels, it would have been an armored personnel carrier. With teeth” (p. 23) and Listrosauruswhich was perhaps the most successful vertebrate of all: “With the body of a pig, the uncompromising attitude to the food of a golden retriever dog, and the head of an electric can opener, Listrosaurus the animal equivalent of a rash of weeds at a bomb site.” p. 89).
By the time Dr. G discusses what we know about human evolution, most readers have returned to more familiar grounds, with the added bonus of having fewer names to keep track of. But this chapter had some surprises for me: for example, although I was aware that there was a bottleneck in human evolution where entire species had nearly gone extinct at least a few times, I was surprised to learn that a small group had clung to life for tens of thousands of years. , confined to an African wetland was a veritable “Garden of Eden” surrounded by harsh deserts. Only after the global climate became milder could our ancient human ancestors leave, migrating outward about 130,000 years ago, before these wetlands eventually dried up to become the Makgadikgadi Pan, one of the largest salt pans in the world, located in the middle of Dry savanna in northeastern Botswana. Ironically, this former lake is now a salt desert that does not support life more complex than cyanobacterial scales, a throwback to the early days of life on Earth.
By speculating on the future of life on Earth, Dr. Gee proposes an intriguing idea of how all life on the planet could eventually become extinct. Even as individuals age and eventually die, so do species and even entire planets. On the one hand, predicting the future is not possible, but general familiarity with Dr. Gee’s idea of the universality of aging makes it strangely understandable and satisfying. In Dr. G’s view, watching all life erupt might be like watching a movie going in reverse, where complexity decreases, and the ability to evolve into new species decreases until there is nothing left alive until the planet itself dies.
Of course, this is just a guess. There’s no evidence to support Dr. G’s suggestion that it’s anything other than particularly interesting science fiction, but I’ve heard this idea before. (It is a pity that Dr. G never states clearly somewhere in the text of his book, as he does in his concluding remarks, “I tell this anecdote more as a story than as a scientific exercise, and some things I will say have more support than others.”)
The only thing that would have improved the book were some of the graphics – even if it was just one on the opening page of each chapter.
Overall, this fast-paced and readable book is beautifully written, with small glimpses of whimsical poetry peeking through scholarly scholarship. The book itself includes 3 pages of bonus books for the reader interested in studying, along with 61 pages of citations and notes – at least some of these notes were very funny and would have served the reader better if they were footnotes instead.
I think everyone will enjoy this book, especially those who do most of their reading on a speeding train or lumbering bus, students of cosmology, geology, zoology, or biology will learn a lot, and the impressive prose will thoroughly delight even the most meticulous of readers.
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