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A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters

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Bringing us to the third section that I have divided this book into, we see the rise of mammals, and other small creatures after the remnants of the dinosaurs’ ashes covered the Earth. And yet, as is the key idea that I believe this book is trying to convey, is Life found a way. Despite all of the challenges that it had faced up until that point, Life was able to continue, and find new ways to grow to extremes and diversify in ways it had never done before. Towards the end of the book, we finally come to where we come in, and what a small section there is about us. This is appropriate, for, in the grand scheme of geologic time, we have, to take a word from the title, left a pithy mark on this planet. From there, we go into the future, discussing how Humanity’s population will finally begin to drop in 2100, and how after a few tens of thousands of years after that, we will be extinct, like so many other organisms that have gone before us.

And the human interior, despite its wide variation in acidity and temperature, is, in bacterial terms, a gentle place. There are bacteria for which the temperature of a boiling kettle is as a balmy spring day. There are bacteria that thrive on crude oil, on solvents that cause cancer in humans, or even in nuclear waste. There are bacteria that can survive the vacuum of space, violent extremes of temperature or pressure, and entombment inside grains of salt—and do so for millions of years.14 As forests became more and more fragmented owing to climate changes linked to continental drift, primates started to venture into the open grasslands, from where the earliest hominins arose 7 million years ago. Their bipedal stance, notes Gee, made them “almost preternaturally maneuverable.” Dinosaurs, meanwhile, are animals that every child has heard of. These hugely successful creatures filled every evolutionary niche, leaving little room for much else, including the early mammals; it wasn’t until the dinosaurs died out that mammals could ‘burst forth like a well-aged champagne, shaken beforehand, and inexpertly corked’. A profusion of fast-evolving and diversifying mammals took over from the dinosaurs. They included what Gee calls ‘a group of leftovers … an assortment of scrappers that included rats, mice, rabbits, and, seemingly almost as an afterthought, the primates’. These small, swift creatures with forward-facing eyes, inclined to curiosity and exploration, would eventually give rise to Homo sapiens. But the emergence of modern humans could so easily not have happened. Around 200,000 years ago, the last survivors of the species were confined to an oasis on the edge of what is now the Kalahari desert. Yet Homo sapiens squeaked through, saved by a period of warming that turned much of the surface of the planet into rich grassland, teeming with game.

In "A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth", Henry Gee has indeed provided the reader with a short, but broad, introduction to the history of the past "4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters". The chapters are fairly short, very interesting and have the occasional amusing observation. Nothing to snooze at in this book. Some of the commentary in the endnotes (which really should have been footnotes!) are also fairly entertaining and informative. The only unfortunate omission is the inclusion of some sketches or illustrations to show the reader what some of the fascinating creatures might have looked like. I enjoyed reading this book a great deal, and I particularly like Henry Gee's writing style. The evolution of the nucleus allowed for a more organized system of reproduction. Bacterial cells generally reproduce by dividing in half to create two identical copies of the parent cell. Variation from the addition of extra genetic material is piecemeal and haphazard.

It was the tendency of bacteria to form communities of different species that led to the next great evolutionary innovation. Bacteria took group living to the next level—the nucleated cell. Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator. Terrifying. As described on the cover, this is a very concise history of the forming of the Earth and the various ages it went through; including the evolution of life and the creatures we now know today (don't worry, the dinosaurs are in here too). The book was over before I knew it, but I can still say I learned way more than I knew before; in a very easy to understand way. Gee is talented when it comes to breaking down the science into general terms.

At some point before 2 billion years ago, small colonies of bacteria began to adopt the habit of living inside a common membrane.15 It began when a small bacterial cell, called an archaeon,16 found itself dependent on some of the cells around it for vital nutrients. This tiny cell extended tendrils toward its neighbors so they could swap genes and materials more easily. The participants in what had been a freewheeling commune of cells became more and more interdependent. Steve Brusatte, paleontologist, University of Edinburgh and New York Times bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.

A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting. Life teems through Henry Gee’s lyrical prose – colossal supercontinents drift, collide, and coalesce, fashioning the face of the planet as we know it today. Creatures are engagingly personified, from ‘gregarious’ bacteria populating the seas to duelling dinosaurs in the Triassic period to magnificent mammals with the future in their (newly evolved) grasp. Those long extinct, almost alien early life forms are resurrected in evocative detail. Life’s evolutionary steps – from the development of a digestive system to the awe of creatures taking to the skies in flight – are conveyed with an alluring, up-close intimacy. About the author How we got here. Understanding, and learning this is a key to understanding where we are today, and where we are going tomorrow. Following the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the idea took hold that Austria had been the first casualty of Hitler’s aggression when in 1938 it was incorporated into the Third Reich.’ In plants today, the energy-harvesting pigment is called chlorophyll. Solar energy is used to split water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, releasing more energy to drive further chemical reactions. In the earliest days of the Earth, however, the raw materials were just as likely to have been minerals containing iron or sulfur. The best, however, was and remains the most abundant—water. But there was a catch. The photosynthesis of water produces as a waste product a colorless, odorless gas that burns anything it touches. This gas is one of the deadliest substances in the universe. Its name? Free oxygen, or O2.Our ancestors have ranged through some pretty… weird phases, let me tell you. All in all, a thoroughly engaging read, complete with ‘the moral of this story’ towards the end. Once upon a time, a giant star was dying. It had been burning for millions of years; now the fusion furnace at its core had no more fuel to burn. The star created the energy it needed to shine by fusing hydrogen atoms to make helium. The energy produced by the fusion did more than make the star shine. It was vital to counteract the inward pull of the star’s own gravity. When the supply of available hydrogen began to run low, the star began to fuse helium into atoms of heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen. By then, though, the star was running out of things to burn. About 2.5 million years ago, Homo erectus arose, a territorial savannah predator, deadly thanks to two traits: it was a powerful long-distance runner and a social animal. From this lineage, Homo sapiens evolved. Humanity’s first attempt at worldwide dispersal failed, shattered by the cold of an ice age 200,000 years ago. Confined to an oasis in what is now the Kalahari Desert, humankind nearly went extinct. We, as a species, are just as fragile as all the others, reminds Gee. Under a microscope, bacterial cells appear simple and featureless. This simplicity is deceptive. In terms of their habits and habitats, bacteria are highly adaptable. They can live almost anywhere. The number of bacterial cells in (and on) a human body is very much greater than the number of human cells in that same body. Despite the fact that some bacteria cause serious disease, we could not survive without the help of the bacteria that live in our guts and enable us to digest our food. Schade, dass es außer den schematischen Karten der Erdzeitalter keine Illustrationen gibt, die diese Vielfalt auch optisch verdeutlichen, obwohl die für ein Sachbuch durchaus bildhafte Schreibweise doch die Vorstellungskraft anregt. Wer als Kind mit Dinosauriern auf du und du war, ist hier klar im Vorteil. Der Anspruch, das zeigt schon der Titel, ist nicht, das endgültige Buch über die Geschichte des Lebens auf der Erde zu schreiben, sondern einen Abriss in für Laien verständlicher Form zu geben und eine Einordnung zu versuchen.

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