Friday, June 08, 2012

History from the widest possible perspective

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, geological history

A History of Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries, by Douglas Palmer, is the most formulaic book I have seen in a long time…but in this case it is a good thing. Each chapter is a three-page essay fronted by a full page photo or image. The discipline imposed by the format probably kept the book from bloating to a thousand-page tome. There are plenty of resources available on any of the topics, whenever something piques your interest.

Among a number of ways to group the chapters, I found this useful:
  • 1-26 – Formation of Earth and all the factors of tectonic and geological processes.
  • 27-72 – The prehistory of life on Earth.
  • 73-79 – The evolution of the genus Homo and of Homo sapiens.
  • 80-97 – What humans have done and are doing to the planet.
  • 98-100 – The distant future.
There was nothing here that I read and thought, "Oh, I didn't know that!" Rather, I found the essays a useful review of major subjects of geological and ecological history. But then, I am a geology junkie, so I've read nearly everything already. The book would be a great introduction to the breadth of geological and geophysical and geomorphological understanding, for someone who is not in the field already. Each essay is introduced by a note regarding the discovery and the breakthrough that elucidated the point.

The fourth section of 18 chapters gets a bit polemical. It remains to be seen whether the human race will have the collective wisdom to stop fouling our own nest, or even to avoid our own extinction. In the last chapter, the author raises the possibility that Homo sapiens, rather than becoming extinct by total elimination, may give rise to a successor species. Given historical rates of evolution in primates, it should take no more than 100,000-200,000 years. Our immediate task is to survive the next half century or so.

A mere couple of hundred thousand years is tiny compared to the experience of a biosphere that already survived the Great Dying in the Permian, 250 million years ago, and the end-Cretaceous asteroid strike, 65 million years ago. Reading the various essays, and realizing the immense sweeps of time that many of the Earth processes encompass, I understood that, though we are having a profound effect on the biosphere (and even perhaps the geosphere) at present, it will be short-lived.

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