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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Chapters

Popular Science
By: Henry Gee(Author)
319 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Picador
A high-octane biography of our planet, A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth dishes out interesting nuggets apace while reinvigorating the reader's awe of deep time.
A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth
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  • A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth ISBN: 9781529060584 Paperback Sep 2022 In stock
  • A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth ISBN: 9781529060560 Hardback Sep 2021 In stock
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About this book

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 living organisms could encounter, life has been extinguished and picked itself up to evolve again. Life has learned and adapted and continued through the billions of years that followed. It has weathered fire and ice. Slimes begat sponges, who through billions of years of complex evolution and adaptation grew a backbone, braved the unknown of pitiless shores, and sought an existence beyond the sea.

From that first foray to the spread of early hominids who later became Homo sapiens, life has persisted, undaunted. A (Very) Short History of Life is an enlightening story of survival, of persistence, illuminating the delicate balance within which life has always existed, and continues to exist today. It is our planet like you've never seen it before.

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A high-octane biography of our planet
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 Nov 2021 Written for Hardback

    Deep time is one of the most mind-boggling yet underappreciated concepts to come out of the disciplines of evolutionary biology and the earth sciences. As an editor with Nature for over three decades, Henry Gee has had a front-row seat to numerous exciting scientific developments that have enriched our understanding of Earth's vast history. This high-octane popular science book is his take on the genre of the "earth biography".

    I admit that my initial response to this book was one of mild surprise: "wait, another one?" A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth was published in the same month as Riley Black's Deep Time and only months after Andrew Knoll's A Brief History of Earth that promises to do the whole exercise in eight chapters. Further back, other notable examples have been Robert Hazen's The Story of Earth and the now-classic Life: An Unauthorised Biography by Richard Fortey. Writing Earth's biography almost seems like a rite of passage for science writers.

    If you have read any of these books, or are familiar with the major events in life's evolution, you already know what to expect. Earth's formation, the start of plate tectonics, the rapid evolution of life, the Great Oxygenation Event, the first bacterial cells, endosymbiosis, multicellular life, the spinal cord, tetrapods making landfall, reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals, monkeys, and mankind – the whole circus comes rolling through town in high tempo.

    And yet, the history of life is so full and rich that every iteration of this story can draw on new details. An important backbone to Gee's version is plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle. As he explains, the breakup of Rodinia (Pangaea's predecessor) was accompanied by so much volcanism and extrusion of fresh rocks that the subsequent erosion drew enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to cause planetary-scale glaciation. More recently, the opening of the Drake Passage allowed the Southern Ocean to flow uninterruptedly around Antarctica, shaping Earth's climate to this day.

    What I particularly enjoyed is that Gee focuses on those geologic periods and fauna that normally get little love in popular science books. There was the invertebrate fauna of the Ediacaran that defies categorization and makes even the weirdos of the Cambrian explosion look normal in comparison. Gee is similarly knowledgeable about the rise of the backbone and introduces you to vetulicolians and yunnanozoans, one of which, Cathaymyrus, "looked like an anchovy fillet [...] sans head, sans scales, sans ears, sans nose, sans brain – sans nearly everything" (p. 38). He introduces you to the fantastic flora of the Carboniferous, and the unique conditions that gave rise to 90% of today's coal reserves. And he sticks up for the fauna of the Triassic that often gets overlooked in favour of the dinosaurs.

    Indeed, when he gets to the dinosaurs, Gee cleverly refrains from trying to write an overview, as so many excellent books already exist on this topic. Instead, he focuses on several biological aspects that made them so successful: the evolution of bipedalism, the innovations in respiration that allowed them to grow so large, and the transition to powered flight. This is embedded in the history of mammal evolution that simultaneously happened in the background, though I was surprised to find no mention of Panciroli's Beasts Before Us, which is the current go-to book on this topic.

    Some other enjoyable details include an increasingly zoomed-in timeline at the beginning of some chapters – too few books use good infographics. Gee's extensive footnotes are frequently as interesting as the main text, provide plenty of further references, and clearly signpost where he ventures into speculation. Some of his writing is particularly memorable. Of the first cells, he writes that: "These foamy lathers of soap-bubble cells stood as tiny clenched fists, defiant against the lifeless world" (p. 7), while the evolution of photosynthesis that harnessed previously damaging UV radiation meant that "harm had become harvest" (p. 8).

    Importantly, Gee repeatedly reminds his readers that evolution is not goal-directed. "It wasn't as if eukaryotes looked at their calendars, and, seeing that it was 825 million years ago, unanimously decided to become multicellular" (p. 217). Furthermore, "the tetrapod commitment to land was, for many millions of years, no more than equivocal" (p. 68). Both early and modern birds have secondarily lost flight on numerous occasions, while one group of ungulates "with enthusiasm, and, in evolutionary terms, great haste" (p. 141) returned to the water and evolved into whales. There is one place where Gee seemingly throws this caution to the wind: "Dinosaurs had always been built to fly" (p. 105) and "[...] spent millions of years accumulating everything they needed for flight" (p. 113). In hindsight, it seems the writing was on the wall, but I was reminded of Neil Shubin's insight that: "innovations never come about during the great transitions they are associated with".

    The first two-thirds of A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth are, in my view, the strongest. After the end of the Cretaceous, the book takes a rather anthropocentric bend, focusing on primate and hominin evolution only, as if life was on the highway to humankind. What, for example, of the explosive radiation of birds? Gee also stops rather abruptly with our departure from Africa and our interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Recent milestones, such as language, animal and plant domestication, and agriculture are skipped over.

    Instead, in his last chapter, Gee looks ahead with an unusual mix of optimism and nihilism. In an upbeat manner, he writes that we are already phasing out fossil fuels and can expect our world population to plateau. Part of his optimism might stem from his agreement with e.g. Michael Hannah that technically it is too early to be speaking of the sixth mass extinction. On the other hand, he thinks our extinction is merely a matter of thousands of years. When he reflects on the long-term future of Earth, he asks: "What, then, will be the human legacy? When measured against the span of life on Earth – nothing". Ours is but a "mayfly existence" (p. 232-233). This reminder of our cosmic insignificance is a sobering but fitting conclusion to Gee's epic tale.

    In 1997, Ted Nield wrote of Fortey's book that "The tale of life needs constant retelling". I believe this sentiment still holds, both because our understanding advances and because we need periodic reminders of the importance of deep time. Gee succeeds on both these fronts and dishes out interesting nuggets at a brisk clip, making A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth a high-octane popular science book.
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Dr Henry Gee was born in 1962. He was educated at the universities of Leeds and Cambridge. For more than three decades he has been a writer and editor at the international science journal Nature. His previous books include The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution; Across The Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates; Deep Time: Cladistics, the Revolution in Evolution; Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome; The Science of Middle-Earth, and (with Luis V. Rey) A Field Guide to Dinosaurs. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, with his family and numerous pets.

Popular Science
By: Henry Gee(Author)
319 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Picador
A high-octane biography of our planet, A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth dishes out interesting nuggets apace while reinvigorating the reader's awe of deep time.
Media reviews

– Shortlisted for the 2022 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

"Gee's prose is so infectiously enthusiastic, and his tone so accessible, that you'll find yourself racing through as if you were reading a novel – and you'll never find yourself scrambling for a good fact to wheel out at an awkward pause in conversation again."
Reader's Digest

"Exhilaratingly whizzes through billions of years [...] Gee is a marvellously engaging writer, juggling humour, precision, polemic and poetry to enrich his impossibly telescoped account [...] [making] clear sense out of very complex narratives"
The Times

"A scintillating, fast-paced waltz through four billion years of evolution, from one of our leading science writers [...] His poetic prose animates the history of life, from the first bacteria to trilobites to dinosaurs to us."
– Steve Brusatte, University of Edinburgh paleontologist and Sunday Times bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"This is now the best book available about the huge changes in our planet and its living creatures, over the billions of years of the Earth's existence [...] Henry Gee makes this kaleidoscopically changing canvas of life understandable and exciting. Who will enjoy reading this book? Everybody!"
– Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

"Henry Gee's whistle-stop account of the story of life (and death – lots of death) on Earth is both fun and informative. Even better, it goes beyond the natural human inclination to see ourselves as special and puts us in our proper place in the cosmic scheme of things"
– John Gribbin

"Don't miss this delightful, concise, sweeping masterpiece! Gee brilliantly condenses the entire, improbable, astonishing history of life on earth – all 5 billion years – into a charming, zippy and scientifically accurate yarn."
– Daniel E. Lieberman, Professor of Biological Sciences, Harvard University

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