Home >mint-lounge >features >Book Review: A New History of Life

In 1944, Erwin Schrödinger, Nobel laureate and among the founding fathers of quantum theory, published the classic, What Is Life? Along with Charles Darwin’s much older On The Origin Of Species, this was one of the books that showed fresh ways of considering the origins of Earth, life, and the mechanism of evolution.

In terms of scope and ambition, Peter Ward, a biologist and a prolific author, has surely aimed to be part of this pantheon. To that effect, he has co-authored with Joe Kirschvink, an accomplished theorist on the early evolution of Earth, this book to convince the reader, as the blurb claims, that “…much of what we think we know should be unlearned…"

Ward and Kirschvink take you back 4.567 billion years ago and detail the chaos, violence, poisonous skies, iced seas, and belligerent bombardment by asteroids that have gone into shaping and creating Earth. In the early years of the 19th century, when geology was being transformed into a serious scientific discipline, scientists found that there was an order to how different layers of Earth were composed, and a regularity to the kinds of fossils found in any given layer. These ideas eventually undermined what were, till then, Biblical truths about Earth’s age (a mere 6,000 years) and the relationship of life forms with each other.

Fossil finds, combined with the systematic pursuit of another discipline, chemistry, helped piece together a grand structure of the origins of Earth on the principle that gradual changes over several millennia built simple life forms that then evolved into higher life forms. Darwin built his theory of evolution on this principle and posited that life forms best suited to a given set of environmental conditions thrived and overwhelmed those “less fit".

Almost as old as this view was another school of thought, called catastrophism, which argued that evolution progressed in bursts and was triggered—and frequently marred—by extreme climate events. Recent advances in molecular biology, DNA studies, and methods of analysing fossil and soil composition led some scientists to lean towards these views: Evolution isn’t necessarily a smooth upward progress, there can be aeons of stasis, and unexpected, catastrophic triggers—an asteroid strike, a change in the Earth’s rotational speed—can change the environment and trigger rapid evolution.

Ward and Kirschvink weave a detailed historical narrative that’s squarely in the catastrophe camp and make the case that the most significant drivers of evolution were the rise and fall in carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. For instance, though it is popularly held that an asteroid decimated the dinosaurs, the authors argue that Earth had already been made vulnerable by a hundred thousand years of basaltic emissions that slowly reduced oxygen levels, and the asteroid strike was the coup de grâce.

The most outstanding facet of their work is the numerous recent examples that they cite to make their case. There are also several explanations on how life may have been seeded in Mars.

The last chapter, “The Knowable Futures Of Earth Life", is ultimately tepid. It has bleak Armageddon scenarios where, in about 500 million years, plant and animal life as we know it will be gone. Given that the end is inevitable, the authors are silent on whether concern on rising carbon dioxide levels and greenhouse gas emissions is warranted. Rather, they warn that the only way out for humanity is to hurry into the Space Age and look for other habitable planets.

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