A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth by Henry Gee
A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters (2021), by Henry Gee is a, stay with me here, concisely told history of life on Earth. Really, it’s all in the title there. So you pretty much know upfront what you’re going to get. A broad, but not deep, fast-paced glide through the major elements of how life evolved from its earliest bacteria days to the more complex (if not “better”) days of, well, us. So put the goggles on and tie down any loose items, because billions and millions of years are going to fly by in a matter of a few pages.
The first chapter, after dispensing with the formation of the solar system and our planet in about five pages, covers the first few billion years on the planet: its atmosphere and geology, and the surprisingly early appearance of life in the form of cyanobacteria followed by eukaryotes and multicellular creatures. Chapter Two picks up with the arrival of sponges, the development of the anus, which “led to a revolution in the biosphere,” the beginning of the predator-prey arms race (teeth and armor), and the movement from soft-bodied to skeletons and shells. The chapter closes with the well-known Cambrian Explosion, after which “all the major groups of animals still around today had made their first appearance.”
Chapter Three brings about the backbone, fish, and the development of jaws. In Chapter Four life moves from the ocean to land via plants then arthropods, then amphibians. Amniotes, in particular reptiles, come on the scene in Chapter Five, as does the largest extinction event ever, where “nineteen of every twenty species of animal in the sea and more than seven out of every ten on land had been driven to extinction,” thus clearing the way for the Age of Dinosaurs in Chapter Six and flying reptiles in Chapter Seven, which ends with its own, more famous extinction event. This one killed off the dinosaurs, once again helping pave the way for a new wave, in this case the mammals whose rise is the focus of Chapter Eight. Chapter Nine starts to slow the millennia-hopping down a bit, focusing on the evolution of apes and hominids, while Chapter Ten picks up that story with Homo Erectus about 2.5 million years ago and the movement out of Africa. Other hominin species soon evolved and co-existed: Homo Floresiensis, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, the Neanderthals, and the Denisovans. A flourishing of species that, as Chapter Eleven notes, ended with the arrival of the sole remaining one, Homo sapiens. This chapter ends the history part of the book, with Chapter Twelve looking ahead to the future of humanity and the planet.
That’s a lot to cover in under 300 pages, but Gee deftly manages to both zoom through time and make that movement seem smooth, manageable, and comprehensible. The big shifts are all here, not just with regard to life’s evolving forms, but also the surrounding necessary context: the changing atmosphere, the shifting continents, weathering/erosion, rising and falling sea levels, advancing and retreating ice, massive lava eruptions, asteroid impacts. These events aren’t simply catalogued; Gee shows how each of these affected the conditions for life, leading some species to adapt to new conditions and driving others into extinction.
Sure, some of the names might be a bit hard to keep straight, unfamiliar as they are and coming sometimes in quick manner, but one never loses the big picture, not the sense of wonder at life’s ingenuity, the way, as someone once said in some little film, it “finds a way.” Gee’s own sense of wonder at this, and his unbridled enthusiasm, shine through the entirety of A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, and he makes for an engaging, sometimes poetic but always easy-to-follow tour guide. Finally, one of the guides I always use for how much I like a non-fiction book is if/how much I read of the notes. I read them all. And highlighted large chunks (so don’t skip them).
A few times I felt Gee could have been a bit more nuanced or addressed a few other views (for instance, the idea that the extinction of the dinosaurs led to the rise of the mammals has been somewhat questioned of late). And including illustrations would have been a definite plus. But those were relatively minor quibbles. Other, far longer books will obviously go into more detail, as will more-focused books, such as those exploring only human evolution or that look solely at the Cambrian Explosion. But there’s also a need for these sort of foundational concept books, ones that give a broadly shallow overview in clear, concise fashion, allowing the reader to step back and hold an entirety of vision in their heads. Which, in turn, allows them to better understand the more detailed knowledge they’ll get elsewhere. A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth is just that kind of foundational book, and one I highly recommend.