‘Once upon a time…’ The opening words of Henry Gee’s new book give notice that what follows will be a story – and a dazzling, beguiling story it is, told at an exhilarating pace. The scale is apparent from the first of a set of mind-boggling timeline graphics: this runs from the birth of the universe to ‘Extinction of life on Earth’, alarmingly close to the dotted line indicating ‘NOW’. This is a book to give you a dizzying perspective on such small matters as human civilisation. ‘Against the backdrop of geological time,’ Gee reminds us, ‘the sudden rise of humanity is of negligible significance.’ We’ll be gone in a while, leaving barely a trace behind. The carbon spike we have contributed to, and which causes us so much anxiety, is high, but on a graph showing trends over millennia it will be very narrow, ‘perhaps too narrow to be detectable in the very long term’. Besides, taking the long view, ‘life on Earth, with all its drama, all its comings and goings, is governed by just two things. One of them is a slow decline in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The other is the steady increase in the brightness of the Sun.’
Unlike carbon dioxide, oxygen might be thought of as an all-round good thing, essential to life on Earth. And yet it was a sudden surge of free oxygen that caused the Great Oxidation Event, unleashing the first of many mass extinctions that pepper the history of this planet.