The biggest story in the world

The other day at the Library of Congress I thumbed through an original printing of Robert Plot’s 1677 volume “The Natural History of Oxford-Shire.” Plot was the curator of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. I handled the beautiful old book very carefully, with some awe and wonder (who were the copy editors then?), and tried to see the world through the eyes of a scientist who lived in an age when the word “scientist” was unknown.

Plot’s research ranged from rocks to birds to fossils. Like any natural philosopher of his time, he did not know certain things about the world, such as its age. He did not know that life evolves, and that this evolutionary process involves extinction.


A woman touches a life-size dinosaur displayed as part of the exhibition “Living Dinosaurs” inside a former post office in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Feb. 3, 2014. (bas Czerwinksi/EPA)

Plot spent many pages trying desperately to explain the origin of a giant, fossilized bone that was clearly the femur of a huge creature. What in tarnation was it? An ox? No. A horse? No. Perhaps it was from an elephant brought to the British Isles by the Romans. But Plot could find little evidence that the Romans were packing large pachyderms. He finally settled on the idea that the enormous bone, and other mysterious bones like it, were the remains of giant human beings.

Not for nearly two centuries would anyone realize that this was a dinosaur bone (most likely from Megalosaurus).

I’ve been reading so much lately about evolution, and one of the shocking realizations among scientists is that it’s not a slow process. Natural selection can be intense over short periods of time — driven, for example, by extreme weather, or by new competition from an invasive species, or by disease. The fossil record chronicles long-term trends — radiations, extinctions — and would suggest that evolution is extremely slow and gradual. But that’s only because the oscillations of evolution aren’t preserved in detail. The fossil record doesn’t include the daily box scores.

Day to day, year to year, we’re buffeted by evolutionary winds. We go this way and that way, herky-jerky. The process is chaotic, multi-variable, and involves many species co-evolving in changing landscapes. It’s incredibly dynamic and unpredictable.

In making sense of the world we need a governing theory, a context, a bigger picture, so that we do not lose ourselves in the weeds and miss the essential truths that later scholars will perceive immediately. One such essential truth, I think, is that human beings are themselves an extraordinary evolutionary event. We’re an explosive force on the planet. Of all the twists and turns of evolution, all the radiations, all the convergences and divergences, there has been just the one creature that developed the technological ability to change the planet itself. And that creature chose to do so.

This is the biggest story in the world. It’s a story that’s breaking all around us.

We are not on a sustainable path. You can easily imagine achieving a form of sustainability the hard way, through disaster and collapse. A  soft-landing would be preferable. Our goal must be to create a sensible and fair and healthy world — a world in which we actually want to live. A world of wonderful organisms, of great beasts and extraordinary flowers. Beauty must survive and thrive — or what’s the point of life?

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · February 19