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Henry Gee tells the origin story we all need to know | Book review

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Henry Gee’s ‘A (Very) Brief History of Life on Earth’ is like taking an aerial view of the planet where nature survives and evolution thrives.

Sibu Tripathy

New Delhi,UPDATED: 14 Nov 2022 14:35 IST

Book review

A (Very) Brief History of Life on Earth by Henry Gee.

By Sibu Tripathic: Physicist Carl Sagan, after seeing the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image of Earth captured by Voyager-1 from the edge of the solar system, said, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That is us. On that, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being that ever was, lived their life.”

Henry Gee captured that emotion more than three decades after Sagan’s speech in his new book “A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth.”

The earth has been around for more than 4.5 billion years and during its journey undergoes a huge upheaval, planetary impacts, devastating moments and above all evolution. Hanging in the vacuum of space, the great blue marble has survived centuries of climate change, terraforming and extinction events, and that journey was not an easy one.

Gee, a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and editor-in-chief of the science journal Nature, drives home on that journey, which begins with the Big Bang and continues through the formation of the solar system, Earth and life as we know it today. His latest book is like an aerial view of the Earth as it goes through the churn and survives the stages of its evolution.

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He manages to explain 4.5 billion years of history in more than 300 pages, highlighting some of the crucial phases that the earth went through, from the evolution of bacterial cells to the gay sapiens. The book traces the eons the planet spent in hibernation before life emerged and the bacterial cells mushroomed in the mammoth dinosaurs before modern humans. The immensity of the fact that while the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, modern humans have only been around for 3,000,000 years will hit you exactly where it’s meant to be.

Gee brings his expertise in paleontology and evolutionary biology to work as he beautifully lays out the story of how dinosaurs had their first flight and how their species took to the skies. Although his experience is of multiple kinds, his writing is impeccably simple, making this book a perfect companion for a journey. If you are also fascinated by how life came to be and how we are the only ones around for billions and billions of miles, this is a must read book.

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He touches on one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate change – and shows how climates, the environment and nature have always prevailed, while species have disappeared, become extinct and, in the case of dinosaurs, literally evaporated. Gee is hopeful for humans, who are the only species who have become aware of their existence, explored other worlds and have a chance to avoid the sixth extinction event.

Why avoid and not stop? Because nature does not stand still.

Gee explains how nature and evolution are relentless, and as Carl Sagan said, “our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our darkness, in all this vastness, there is no indication that help from elsewhere will come to save us from ourselves.”

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