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. He spent many pages trying to explain the origin of a giant, fossilized bone found in England. One theory was that it was the femur of an elephant brought to the British Isles by the Romans. But Plot could find little evidence that the Romans were packing large pachyderms.
He decided the bone came from a giant human being.
Paleontologists believe it was actually from a dinosaur, specifically a megalosaur. But Plot, of course, did not know of the existence of dinosaurs. He did not know that the world is very old. He did not know that life evolves. He did not know that countless species once existed and had become extinct.
We are still learning about evolution. Something that even Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace didn’t know about evolution is that it can happen extremely quickly. Natural selection can be intense over short periods of time — driven, for example, by extreme weather, by new competition from an invasive species or by disease.
The fossil record chronicles long-term trends — including radiations of new species — and would suggest that evolution is slow and gradual. But that’s only because the oscillations of evolution aren’t preserved in detail. The process is chaotic and multi-variable and involves many species co-evolving in changing landscapes. It’s incredibly dynamic and unpredictable. The fossil record doesn’t include the daily box scores.
As Jonathan Weiner puts it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 book, “The Beak of the Finch,” “Selection pressures may oscillate violently within the lifetimes of most animals and plants around us, so that the robin must cling to the oak, and the oak to the ground, in chafing and contrary winds.”
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 details and miss the essential truths that later scholars will perceive immediately. One such essential truth 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.
This is the biggest story in the world — 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, after 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 would 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?
This article first appeared as a blog post on Achenblog.