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

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens. It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force.

As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic. 

There was a whole lot of information here that was new to me, as we follow the development of life in manifold ways, both in the different ways this happened but also in the way that everything fits together. This is one of the best things about the book. Like, I suspect, most people, I had a distinctly vague conception of the relative timing of many bits of the development and evolution of life - Gee gives us the big picture without ever overwhelming the reader or becoming too summary.

Another masterful aspect of the structure is the way that the first eight chapters build in a kind of crescendo, then the whole thing widens out with first the development of apes, then hominins, then humans and finally looks forward to the future. I use a musical term intentionally - this feels like a well-crafted piece of music, pushing us on to the big finish.

My favourite chapter of all, even though it's inevitably speculative, was the one titled The Past of the Future, where Gee takes us through what is likely to happen to life on a future Earth, including its our and its eventual extinction - this has a slightly wistful, but inevitable feel to it and is quite remarkable. This takes us around a billion years ahead from now - so the whole span of the book is more like 5.5 billion years. 

Along the way there are plenty of examples of delightful writing. I loved, for example, the line 'As many bacteria could fit on the head of a pin as there were revellers who went to Woodstock, and with room to spare.' Or the beautiful description of 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.'

A couple of small negatives. Some of the science that is decidedly speculative is stated as if it were fact (for example, the Theia hypothesis for the formation of the Earth/Moon system). It's probably necessary to keep up the momentum, but I would have liked a proviso in the introduction. Gee's descriptions are good, but I really missed having illustrations (for example, he refers to the 'strikingly beautiful' Dickinsonia - I wanted to see a drawing of one). Okay, I could look it up online, as I did with several examples, but it would have been good to have had them there and then. If we're going to be fussy, the first timeline seems to suggest the birth of the universe was 11.2 billion years ago, rather than 13.8. And I'm a little doubtful of the assertion 'Within the next few thousand years Homo sapiens will have vanished.'

The argument for our disappearance is based on, amongst other things, a combination of falling birthrate and declining carbon dioxide levels. This is one of the delights of the chapter that peers in to the future - although all our focus at the moment is on keeping carbon dioxide levels down (and that is essential for now), long term it is likely to be reducing carbon dioxide rates that does for much of life on Earth. My doubt here is that there is no mention of anything outside of biology. Humans have thrived of late because their technology enables them not just to respond to the environment, as is normal in biology, but to modify the environment and add non-biological abilities (such as flying). It's entirely possible that humanity will wipe itself out, but I would surprised that if we do survive it won't possible to hold off environmental changes for more than those 'few thousand years'. To be fair, Gee tempers that later, referring to our future as a 'few thousand to tens of thousands of years' and then a little later still as 'sooner or later'. Like Neils Bohr and others, I believe that prediction is difficult, especially about the future, and I prefer the less definitive figure. 

This one is easy to sum up. Brilliant book. Buy it.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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