A Brief History of Earth (Review): From the Big Bang to the Anthropocene crisis in digestible bites.

When the news of the 2020 census report broke, media reports focused on the political implications for the United States. Traditional Democratic strong-holds like New York and California lost Congressional seats while Republican states like Texas picked up seats. The results carried a direct bearing on the political balance of power in Washington D.C. But I saw things differently and my immediate reading of the situation differed markedly from just about everything I read online. My first thought was “What does this trend mean for the Theory of Evolution in America?” 

In the American textbook industry, Texas holds considerable influence on the content of school books. This stems from the size of their education system and the economics of textbook production. Publishers do not see producing two sets of textbooks as being feasible — one for Texas and one for the remainder of the country —  so they normally choose to make one that caters to the Lone Star State’s viewpoints. Often, this meant down playing the role of slavery during the Civil War and mischaracterizing the relationship between slave-owner and slave into a mutually beneficial partnership. Other times, this meant insisting that the Theory of Evolution and Intelligent Design were on equal theoretical footing, that each was as provable as the other.

Moreover, the ties between Texans and Christianity runs deep. It is reinforced at an early age when schoolchildren recite their pledge to the state in classrooms across the state. Included in their oat are the words, “I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God.” For anyone keeping track, the chain goes I-Texas-God.

If evolutionary theory is to withstand the assault from the various segments of society opposed to it, it will need a solid narrative to act as its scaffold and will need to extend its influence beyond Darwinism in all its forms. The story of the origin of the species must encompass everything from the birth of our planet to the effects of the Anthropocene Era. The diversity of fields involved in forming that narrative — all of which rebut the Creationist timeline — reinforce each other as well as Darwin’s theory.

It was with these concerns in mind that I approached Andrew H. Knoll’s contribution to the debate. A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters (Custom House $11.99) is a modestly sized book that punches far above its weight. What’s more, it’s the type of book that is sorely needed at this moment in history.

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Knoll sets out at the very beginning of the Universe, at least as far as modern physics’ is concerned. The Big Bang. From there, he follows the formation of our planet from aggregating specks of stellar dust into a heaving, black mass covered by glowing molten cracks.

We pick up the story about 4.6 billion years ago, focusing on an unassuming cloud of hydrogen atoms, along with small amounts of gas, ice and mineral grains within the spiraling arm of a nondescript galaxy Milky Way.

As Knoll works through the formation, he also describes the clever ways scientists have devised to estimate the age of the Earth’s deepest layers close to the core. This is important as it establishes the experimental rigor behind the different aspects of the story he recounts. One example he discusses in the book is the way those wannabe diamonds found in department stores around the world are priceless when it comes to geology.

Zirconia have a remarkable property: as they crystallize zircon incorporate a bit of uranium into their structure. They don’t take up lead because lead ions are too large to fit into the growing crystals… Because no lead entered the zircon as they formed, any lead we measure in them today must have formed by radioactive decay of uranium. So, by the careful measurement of uranium and lead in zircon, we gain a clock, Earth’s best chronometer for calibrating our planet’s deep history.

With the planet formed, A Brief History of Earth tackles the yet-unsettled subjected how complex organic molecules formed in early Earth, offering the warm-soupy-mix explanation (among others) and a geological make-up a lot like Iceland.

Even after the organic molecules became readily available, the Earth remained an inhospitable place. For starters, it was still extremely hot, the result of greenhouse gases run amok.

Three and a half billion years ago, then, Earth was already a biological planet. And a few observations hint at still early good life. Among the fjords of Southwestern Greenland, Coastal rocks include the rarest of the rare: igneous and sedimentary rocks some 3.8 billion years old.

If global sauna conditions wasn’t obstacle enough, the atmosphere was devoid of oxygen, a veritable non-starter in the evolutionary sweepstakes. The anoxic Earth consisted primarily of CO2, water vapor, and different hydrogen gases. Mounting evidence indicates that various archaea and bacteria able to survive extreme conditions similar to early Earth played key roles in transitioning to more life-friendly ones. They used available elements and light from the sun to catalyze reactions necessary for their survival, mostly relying on iron and sulfur. Cyanobacteria began to dominate the planet, according to Knoll, and “as they did so, they transformed the world.”

The transformation eventually culminated in the populating of land, oceans, and air. Plants were the first to arrive, first in water then on soil. In time, multicellular organisms grew in size until they became sea creatures, some even related to today’s maritime inhabitants, others completely foreign. Eventually, the transition from water to land occurred, giving rise to all sorts of land animals, including dinosaurs and the descendants of modern man. 

The extinction of the dinosaurs, while distressing to countless generations of wide-eyed children, was a propitious event for mammals. 

Mass extinctions have clearly played a major role in shaping evolutionary history. The modern world is full of mammals in part because dinosaurs became extinct. FIsh in the open ocean radiated only after end-Cretaceous mass extinction eliminated the ammonites. Reefs today contain modern corals, mollusks, and crabs not so much because they outcompetes the tabulate corals, brachiopods, and trilobites of ancient reef systems but because mass extinction decimated those groups.

Among the mammals to survive and thrive, primates flourished in the new setting as grasslands began to replace forests. They spread out far and wide. Lemurs. Tarsiers. Great apes. Their success was due in part to the sudden lack of competition. One group that flourished? Hominins. And as they evolved, their descendants branched off into different (yet similar) species. That includes us humans and our ability to wreak havoc on the planet.

Knoll goes further than the rise of Homo sapeins. It also ties together our ability to think symbolically with early humans expressing their creativity on the walls of caves. This ability — symbolic thinking — allowed human beings to bend Nature to our will and also alter it beyond recognition.

Knoll assembles facts from a wide variety of fields to tell our planet’s story in a clear and accessible narrative. By patching them together, he creates a causal chain explaining how the Big Bang probably gave rise to the world as we know it. In the process, he places the human family firmly along the still-progressing timeline that stretches back billions of years. The fact that Knoll can create a seamless and understandable narrative is no small feat, considering the amount of material he needed to cover. A Brief History of Earth is the type of book Science will need if it’s going to beat back the acolytes of Intelligent Design. If nothing else, Knoll knee-caps the Discovery Institute’s teach-the-controversy strategy by showing, in no uncertain terms, that there is no controversy.

WORDS: Marc Landas.

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