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The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
|Length: 185 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
|Page Flip: Enabled||
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Benton begins his book the way a philosopher might: "It is hard to make sense of the history of life on Earth." He talks about the almost unimaginable periods of time involved, the complexity and incomplete character of the data, and the sheer diversity and strangeness of life in its forms. Yet Benton proceeds carefully and methodically examining the evidence. Even a very short introduction to the history of life requires reference to several disciplines, including biology, geology, chemistry, geography, and physical anthropology, and more. Benton wants to explain what he calls the "evolutionary tree of life" which includes its development from its earliest stages many millions of years ago. The three chief sources of data, Benton points out, are the fossil record, the advances in molecular biology, and techniques in determining the age of rocks.
The book covers a great deal of material concisely and well. Benton writes clearly and with an obvious mastery of his subject. He does not write down to his lay readers. The work includes many photographs and charts which help with the text. The most important of these is the chart of geologic time (pp. 17-18) which is basic for understanding what follows.
In successive chapters, Benton considers the origins of life, the early beginnings of sexual reproduction, the origins of skeletons, the movement of life from the sea to land, the Carboniferous age of life and its extinction, the dinosaurs and their extinction, and the origins of humans. He writes both with the respect for fact of a scientist and with a sense of the wonder of the history and its many twists, developments, and byways. The sense of wonder is particularly apparent in Benton's discussion of the origins of life. Benton discusses controversies among scientists over the data and how the controversies have been resolved, if they have. He shows awareness of the ambiguous place of humans in the history. On one hand, humans are the product of evolution, as are other forms of life. On the other hand, humans are in some sense "special" in that "no other species on earth to our knowledge, writes books, or even reflects on the history of its species."
At the end of his very short introduction, Benton draws some conclusions. Most importantly, he argues that the history of life cannot be regarded as a "narrative" in the way this word is now overused because the development of life has not been teleologically (purposefully) based but is instead the product of evolution. Benton also points out that the evolutionary process has not stopped, and he cautions his readers, in spite of the uniqueness of humans, against thinking that our species constitutes in any meaningful way the "pinnacle" or the "goal" of the evolutionary process. This is wise advice.
The most striking aspect of this history of life for me was the enormity of geologic time. The many millions of years of evolutionary development get stressed in the book. It is difficult to even imagine time frames of this scope.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. which has many exhibits that complement this work. But strolling casually through a wonderful museum is no substitute for sustained reading of even a very short introductory book. I haven't thought a great deal about science since graduating from college many years ago. This book and others in the very short introductions series constitute excellent ways to be reminded of important ways of thinking and learning.
Covering the four billion year development of life on Earth in 160 pages is, to say the least, no easy task. But Michael Benton succeeds in picking out key themes and milestones without appearing superficial. He is particularly good at highlighting current debates and uncertainties, drawing attention to just how much evidence on the big issues has emerged over the last few years. This helps bring alive what could, in other hands, be a rather dull sequence of distant geological periods and fossils with tongue-twistingly strange names. For those with an eye to the future rather than past, the chapter on the End-Permian Mass Extinction is as chilling an account of climate change as you will find.
I did feel that some of the later parts of the book were a little too compressed, perhaps as a page limit loomed, and the publishers might have chosen more effective illustrations. And a list of further reading would have helped. But these are minor criticisms of a really handy little work that does "exactly what it says on the tin".
The chapter on the origins of life is poorly done and does not explain sufficiently the various theories. I simply cringed when I read "predicted by Euan Nisbet and Norman Sleep's model for the origin of life". The section on multicellularity wasn't particularly instructive nor helpful. Many undergraduate courses in Biology will cover the various theories of the origin of multicellularity in a number of lectures indicating the complexity and controversial nature of this area.
By the time I got to p.118 and read the section on the runaway greenhouse, my brain could take no more. I think if you are looking for a book on vertebrate palaeontology/evolution then this would be a reasonably simple introduction. But if you are interested in the origin and early development of life, go elsewhere.
I was thus wondering, as I came toward the end of the book, how long it would be before the author began to chant political correctness and sure enough there it is on page 163 and indeed the author feels the need to justify himself by saying that what he is saying is not just political correctness! - well, why say that if it isn't. I don't believe a word of it and simple observation should persuade anyone that the last few pages are utterly and entirely implausible. Those few pages are not science but religion.
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