In the beginning, Earth was an inhospitably alien place―in constant chemical flux, covered with churning seas, crafting its landscape through incessant volcanic eruptions. Amid all this tumult and disaster, life began. The earliest living things were no more than membranes stretched across microscopic gaps in rocks, where boiling hot jets of mineral-rich water gushed out from cracks in the ocean floor.
Although these membranes were leaky, the environment within them became different from the raging maelstrom beyond. These havens of order slowly refined the generation of energy, using it to form membrane-bound bubbles that were mostly-faithful copies of their parents―a foamy lather of soap-bubble cells standing as tiny clenched fists, defiant against the lifeless world. Life on this planet has continued in much the same way for millennia, adapting to literally every conceivable setback that living organisms could encounter and thriving, from these humblest beginnings to the thrilling and unlikely story of ourselves.
Today guest, Henry Gee, author of A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, zips through the last 4.6 billion years to tell a tale of survival and persistence that illuminates the delicate balance within which life has always existed.
We discuss the following:
Dinosaurs In Flight. It’s 25 years since the discovery of the first feathered dinosaurs and Henry was (to quote Hamilton) In The Room Where It Happened, quite literally. Learn about Sinosauropteryx, how they came to be published and how it transformed our ideas of dinosaurs, birds, and flight.
Whether We Are We Really Doomed As someone who studies the Earth from its beginning, Henry believes that the current crisis of climate and extinction, although real, has been overplayed and that we can turn the tide. In the context of the Earth’s history, a rise of a degree or two amounts to no more than a hill of beans; and calls to ‘Save the Planet’ look like a case of colossal narcissistic hubris. One might as well say ‘Stop Plate Tectonics’, or even ‘Stop Plate Tectonics – NOW.’ Henry is one of the few scientists who believes there is still hope, and, perhaps, some cause for cautious optimism.
The Beowulf Effect. The Old English poem Beowulf is a vital source of information on history, language, story and belief from the darkest of the Dark Ages. Only one copy is known to exist (it’s in the British Library), and that was rescued from a fire that is known to have destroyed many other manuscripts. If Beowulf didn’t exist, how much would we know about that period? It’s a sobering thought that between 410 and 597, no scrap of writing survives from what is now England. This is an interval comparable in length between now… and the Napoleonic Wars. The same is true about fossils — what we know of the fossil record is an infinitesimal dot on an infinitesimal dot on what really happened. Almost everything that once existed on our planet has been lost. This means that anything new we find has the potential to change everything. Henry can talk about the latest discoveries on human evolution showing how the story of human evolution was much stranger than we could have imagined even twenty years ago. There was a time, not so long ago, when hobbits, yetis and giants really did walk the Earth, and some of them have left their genetic heritage in us.