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Book Review: 'A New History of Life'

Jun 16, 2015 01:32 PM EDT

(Photo : Pixabay)

Thrills and suspense are the last things you'd associate with a science book, but Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink's A New History of Life  delivers plenty of both. Think of it as an epic, complete with dramatic explosions and powerful visions, but all happening in a familiar place: Earth, from its very beginning to the evolution of life and right through to present day.

There's also a bit of snark along the way: these guys aren't exactly Jurassic Park fans, and instead offer a rather different picture of prehistoric life than we're used to, complete with Arctic-dwelling dinosaurs and the high oxygen atmospheres that made the existence of giant sauropods possible. Somehow, the writers pull off a riveting narrative without the use of characters, or for that matter, without a whole lot of recognizable ones in control of the story. All too often, people are the focus of any such narratives, with just glimpses of dinosaurs and the Big Bang. But people are actually pretty dull characters compared to other marvels of evolution - like Tiktaalik, the amphibious fish with wrists - and terra-forming violent incidents - iron rain penetrating a primitive Earth, planetary collisions, an endless storm of meteorites, and a constant string of extinction events, all the disasters that were vital in shaping our world and us.

Instead of a linear thread, the authors see a vast panorama of history embedded in the layers of rock - the Earth congealing and cooling, and the parade of evolution that ensued and how they adapted to ever changing climates. The latest debate is whether we are living in a new geological period of our own design - the Anthropocene - as our existence on this planet has left a permanent impact on the evolution of species and the shaping of the planet - something evidenced by a 400-year-old aluminum stain beneath the ice of the Andes Mountains, the result of excessive mining by Spanish conquistadors.

In sum, Ward and Kirschvink's A New History of Life makes for an exciting and comprehensive read, enthralling to science nerds and lay readers who are curious about the rich natural history of planet Earth. The authors win us over and capture our attention by considering Earth in a larger perspective, comparing it to Venus and Mars as a habitable zone. Did these neighboring planets once harbor life? If so, how long did it thrive? These questions become more provocative when you realize they apply to our home as well - namely, how much more of the Anthropocene period do we have left?

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