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A (Very) Brief History of Life on Earth by Henry Gee – Review

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Humans and all other living things on today’s planet 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 occupied philosophers, thinkers and scientists for thousands of years. The short answer is that humans are the product of 4.6 billion years of evolution on Earth, just like all other living things living on 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, has a succinct summary of the entire history of everything – from the Big Bang, the formation of the solar system, and the birth of the Earth, to microbial life, you and me, and even the entire Earth. end of life. In this book, Dr. G a fascinating exploration of the enduring “where did we come from” question, combining findings from a wide variety of scientific disciplines into one cohesive story through beautifully thought-provoking and witty prose.

Despite the billions of years covered in this book, the chapters are surprisingly short, consisting of still small bits of interesting information interspersed with the occasional witty comment or description. Dr. G begins by sharing what he’s gathered so far about the birth of the planet and its structure, from the first movements of slimy membranes in rock cracks to the unexpectedly rapid appearance of life, which then broke up – Giving rise to secretion unicellular. to the advent of microbes, 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.

The Latin names for many of these ancient creatures may overwhelm some readers, but Dr. Gee’s vivid descriptions of these plants and animals provide fascinating mental images of creatures that lived long ago, such as amphibians that lived on land, eryops, “Who looked like a frog pretending to be a crocodile. If it had wheels it would be an armored personnel carrier. With teeth” (p. 23) and LystrosaurusWhich was probably the most successful vertebrate ever: “With the body of a pig, the casual attitude to food of a Golden Retriever and the head of an electric can opener, Lystrosaurus At a bomb site was an animal the size of a weed pellet. (page 89).

By the time Dr. G discusses what we know about hominin evolution, most readers are back to a more familiar level, with the bonus of having fewer names to keep track of. But this chapter had some surprises for me: For example, while I knew there was a bottleneck in human evolution where the entire species nearly went extinct on at least several occasions, I was surprised to learn that a small group lived for tens of thousands of years. Connected to life for thousands of years, locked in an African wetland, which was actually the ‘Garden of Eden’, surrounded by inhospitable deserts. It wasn’t until the global climate softened that our ancient human ancestors were able to leave and migrate outward about 130,000 years ago, before these wetlands eventually became the Makgadikgadi Pans, one of the world’s largest salt pans. There is one that is in the middle. Dry savanna in northeastern Botswana. Ironically, this former lake is now a salt desert that supports no more complex life than layers of cyanobacteria, a throwback to the earliest days of life on Earth.

Speculating about the future of life on Earth, Dr. G an interesting idea about how all life on this planet could become extinct. Even 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. G’s idea of ​​the universality of aging makes it understandable and strangely satisfying. According to Dr. Gee, watching all life in an instant could be like watching a movie in reverse, where complexity diminishes and the ability to evolve into new species diminishes until nothing survives. Lives, even the planet dies.

Of course this is pure speculation. There is no evidence to support Dr. G, except particularly interesting sci-fi, but the idea is something I’ve heard before. (It is a pity that Dr. G nowhere clearly states 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 would say have more evidence than others.’)

One thing that would have improved the book is some illustrations – even just one picture on the first page of each chapter.

Overall, this fast-paced and readable book is beautifully written, with little glimpses of whimsical poetry laced through scholarly scholarship. The book contains 3 pages of additional books for the interested reader to study, as well as 61 pages of quotes and notes – at least some of these notes were quite funny and would serve the reader better if they were footnotes.

I think everyone will enjoy this book, especially those who read the most on a speeding train or lumberjack bus, and cosmology, geology, zoology, or biology students will find it very helpful. Some will learn and the thought-provoking prose will greatly delight even the most discerning reader.


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