A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth by Henry Gee

Henry Gee (Dr Henry Gee announced as winner of the 2022 Royal Society Science Book Prize | Royal Society) is is a palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and senior editor of the scientific journal Nature.

In this book from 2021 Gee undertakes to explain the 3.7 billion years of life on Earth in 319 pages.

For billions of years, Earth was an inhospitably alien place – covered with churning seas, slowly crafting its landscape by way of incessant volcanic eruptions, the atmosphere in a constant state of chemical flux. And yet, despite facing literally every conceivable setback that organisms could encounter, forms of life have picked themselves up to evolve again after extinction events. Life has adapted and continued through the billions of years that followed. It has survived through fire and ice. Slimes begat sponges, who through billions of years of complex evolution and adaptation generated creatures with a backbone, braved the unknown of pitiless shores, and sought an existence beyond the sea.

The author begins by sharing what we have pieced together so far about the birth the planet and its structure to the unexpectedly quick appearance of life. After the first stirrings of slimy membranes ensconced within cracks in rocks, distinct single-celled microbes arose followed by the advent of cellular cooperation and specialization. The appearance of multicellular life was next, followed by their evolution into a plethora of increasingly complex and specialized forms. Gee provides brief, and sometimes surprising, glimpses into the lives of various plants and animals from the earliest points in evolutionary history up to the present day.

One has to admire the thousands of painstaking scientific researchers who have carefully attended to the evidence and pieced together this history of life on Earth.

Here are some choice excerpts to whet your appetite:

‘There was the small matter of worldwide glaciation to contend with. But evolutionary change thrives on adversity’. (p.22)

‘At some time in the middle of the Ediacaran, animals actively started to eat one another. And once that was happening they also started to find ways to avoid being eaten’. (p. 24)

‘The earliest mineralised skeletons are about 550 million years old and belonged to an animal called Cloudina’. (p. 26)

‘By the end of the Cambrian period, all the major groups of animals still around today had made their first appearance in the fossil record’ (p.31)

‘The ground fractured. Lava oozing from myriad fissures eventually paved an area the size of the continental United States from the Eastern seaboard all the way to the Rocky Mountains, in black basalt thousands of metres thick. The ash, smoke and gas that accompanied it killed nearly all life on the planet. But not instantly: the torture was extended into half a million years of toxic agony’ (p. 81)

‘The earliest hominins emerged in the late Miocene, around 7 million years ago’ (p. 151)

‘The adoption of bipedality, by a lineage of apes living in the river margins and in the wood-eaves of Africa 7 million years ago, was one of the most remarkable, unlikely, and puzzling events in the entire history of life’. (p. 151)

‘When the backbone evolved half a billion years ago, it was a structure held horizontally, in tension. In hominins it moved through ninety degrees, to be held vertically, in compression. No more radical alteration in the engineering requirements of the backbone has happened since it first evolved, and it can only be regarded as maladaptive – witness that back problems constitute one of the most costly and frequent causes of illness in humans today’ (p. 152)

‘Primates, more than any other mammals, are prone to aggressive violence, even murder. Hominins are the most murderous of all’ (p. 170)

‘In many respects the social and sexual mores of humans have more in common with those of birds than other primates. (p. 172)

‘Homo Sapiens will, however, end up extinct sooner or later’ (p. 231)

‘What, then, will be the human legacy? When measured against the span of life on Earth – nothing. The whole of human history, so intense and so brief, all the wars, all the literature, all the princes and dictators in their palaces, all the joy, all the suffering, all the loves and dreams, and achievements, will leave no more than a layer, millimetres thick in some sedimentary rock until that too, is eroded to dust and comes to rest at the bottom of the ocean’. (p. 233)

If Gee is correct in this last observation, get hold of a copy of his book before it (and you) become a layer of dust at the bottom of the ocean.

Check at your local library to see if this Winner of The Royal Society Book Prize 2022 is in stock. Home | South Lanarkshire Libraries (sllclibrary.co.uk)

319 pages in Picador

First published 2021

ISBN 978 1529060 560

Henry Gee
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