On a bus or in a queue, we’ve all been witness to the incessant questions of a precocious child: Why are leaves green? Why were the dinosaurs so big? How do birds fly? We’ve all watched parents give an unsatisfactory answer or fumble with a second child, dismissing the query of the first. But if the observed parent was Henry Gee, author of A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, no such thing would happen. The answers overheard would be expansive and satisfying.
Such is the nature of Gee’s new book, in which he plunges us back in time but also casts us back to a juvenile state of wonder. If you’re prone to fleeting moments in the midst of daily tasks in which you stop to question how all of this precious life came to be, the answers – at least for a general audience – can be found conveniently packaged within these 234 pages.
Gee begins 100 million years after the planet first formed – the time when primitive molecular life first sputtered into existence from Earth’s volcanic depths. At breakneck speed, he then leaps and lands on evolutionary breakthroughs: from the time when early microscopic organisms gained the ability to fuse hydrogen, oxygen and carbon to form sugars; to the first emergence of multicellularity; to the development of segmentation in the body plans of primitive animals. He moves on to the evolution of the reptilian egg, past the development of the placenta, before arriving at a time when the planet was dominated by randy, outsized mammals with hyperacute sensory systems and, of course, to the bipedal forebears of Homo sapiens.
In some chapters, the eyes of less-discerning amateur naturalists may glaze over. It can be difficult to maintain enthusiasm for the detritus-feeding, sediment-sifting tactics of the early sea sponges. Readers have to pay close attention, else the names of ancient species become indistinguishable from one another. But sharper readers will be dazzled by the importance of each of life’s phases and each rung of the evolutionary ladder, described here both poetically and with a satisfying sense of order.
Gee has a remarkable ability to describe how species and their environment have shaped one another. Atmospheric, climatic and geological phenomena are ever-present gatekeepers, periodically warping Earth’s conditions to suit only a few types of organism, which manage to struggle through the waves of extinction. Throughout life’s perilous journey, extinction and evolution swing in perfect rhythm. Gee neatly portrays this dance in a way that dissolves life’s mind-boggling complexity into something digestible for everyone.