A (Very) Short History Of Life On Earth By Henry Gee — Review

Humans and all other living beings that occupy the planet today are the products of 4.6 billion years of evolution on Earth

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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 a product of 4.6 billion years of evolution on Earth, as are all the other living beings that occupy the planet today.

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy 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 Earth, from microbial life, to you and me, and even, to the end of all life of Earth. In this book, Dr Gee presents an engaging exploration of this enduring ‘where did we come from’ question by combining findings from a variety of scientific disciplines into a coherent story using beautifully evocative and witty prose.

Despite the billions of years covered in this book, its chapters are surprisingly short, comprised of still-shorter niblets of interesting information sometimes punctuated with amusing observations or descriptions. Dr Gee 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, from the first stirrings of slimy membranes ensconced within cracks in rocks, that then gave rise to distinct single-celled 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 lives of various plants and animals from the earliest points in evolutionary history up to the present day.

Latin names for many of these earlier creatures may overwhelm some readers, but Dr Gee’s vivid descriptions of these plants and animals provide fascinating mental images of these beings that lived so long ago, such as the land-dwelling amphibian, Eryops, “which looked like a bullfrog imagining itself as an alligator. Had it had wheels, it would have been an armoured personnel carrier. With teeth” (p. 23) and Lystrosaurus, which was probably the most successful vertebrate ever: “with the body of a pig, the uncompromising attitude towards food of a golden retriever, and the head of an electric can opener, Lystrosaurus was the animal equivalent of a rash of weeds on a bomb site.” (Pg 89).

By the time Dr Gee discusses what we know about the evolution of hominids, most readers are back on more familiar footing, with the added bonus of having fewer names to keep track of. But this chapter held some surprises for me: for example, although I was aware there was a bottleneck in human evolution where the entire species nearly died out at least several times, I was surprised to learn that a small group clung to life for tens of thousands of years, confined in an African wetland that was a veritable ‘Garden of Eden’ surrounded by inhospitable deserts. Only after the global climate became milder were our ancient human ancestors able to leave, migrating outwards around 130,000 years ago, before these wetlands eventually dried out to become the Makgadikgadi Pan, which is 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 on the future of life on Earth, Dr Gee proposes an interesting idea for how all life may eventually go extinct on this planet. Even as individuals age and eventually die, so too, do species and indeed, even entire planets. On one hand, predicting the future is not possible, but the overall familiarity of Dr Gee’s idea of the universality of aging makes it understandable and weirdly satisfying. In Dr Gee’s view, watching all life wink out may be like watching a film run in reverse, where complexity declines, and the ability to evolve into new species diminishes until there’s nothing left alive as even the planet itself dies.

Of course, this is pure speculation. There is no evidence to support Dr Gee’s proposal as anything other than especially interesting science fiction, but this idea is something I’ve heard before. (It is unfortunate that Dr Gee did not clearly state somewhere in the text of his book, as he does in his endnotes, that “I am telling this tale more as a story than as a scientific exercise, some of the things I’ll say have more evidential support than others.”)

One thing that would have improved the book is a few drawings — even just one on the opening page for each chapter.

Overall, this fast-paced and readable book is beautifully written, with small glimmers of whimsical poetry peeking through the scientific scholarship. The book itself includes 3 pages of additional books for the interested reader to study, along with 61 pages of citations 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 get most of their reading done on a speeding train or a lumbering bus, and students of cosmology, geology, zoology, or biology will learn a lot and the evocative prose will absolutely delight even the most precise readers.

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