cover image A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters

Henry Gee. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-250-27665-0

Gee (The Accidental Species), a paleontologist and senior editor at the science journal Nature, finds beauty in adversity in this eloquent account of how life evolved on Earth. Gee explains how varied life forms rose to the challenges of changing sea levels, “world-spanning” ice ages, and volcano-induced extinctions, as in the Permian period when the world became “a cauldron of magma.” He describes how the giant Pteranodon “cruised the seas... winging between the young and divergent continents” and how ancient mosses and liverworts crept onto barren, wind-scoured coasts that were “as dry and lifeless as the surface of the moon.” Early lichen life forms, he explains, were “forged in fire” and “hardened in ice” as they adapted, and Gee spotlights nature’s ingenuity as plants sprouted up and creatures began to crawl. Early conifers, for example, engineered a clever response to unfavorable growing conditions (the seed), and the small, lizardlike Westlothiana helped vertebrates make the tricky transition from the sea to arid land with a newly designed “private pond” (the egg). Gee is also a gleeful guide to the lives of early humans who, he notes, responded to ever-harsher living conditions “with larger brains and increasing stores of fat.” Action-packed and full of facts, this well-told tale will delight lay readers. (Nov.)