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An image of the Earth with the sun rising behind it

Earth Story: the greatest show is Earth

Since life began there has been an unbroken chain from the very first living things all the way to you. Join us as we explore Earth's Story.

Intro

Earth formed from coalescing space dust and rock about 4.5 billion years ago, but it took another billion years or so for the most significant event in the history of Earth to happen – the dawn of life. Once life had emerged from the strange chemistry of the young Earth, processes of biological and geological evolution began to sculpt and shape it. In the 3.5 billion years since, these glacial, unstoppable forces have created a dizzying diversity of life forms, wild and beautiful beyond all imagination. We hairless, upright African apes share the Earth with a vast, complex, and interconnected community of life. Countless bacteria, fungi, plants and animals, from possibly 10 million species, find homes in every conceivable (and inconceivable) ecological niche. From frozen mountaintops to deep oceanic trenches and even places we once thought were hopelessly lifeless: deep permanent ice, hydrothermal vents, rocks beneath our feet, and clouds above our heads, all turn out to be teeming with microscopic creatures.

Bee on flowers

How did this happen?

How did this once lifeless rock end up full of life? 

For the first three billion years or so most living things were simple, single-celled organisms. Eventually, some began to cluster together to form multicellular organisms. In these new multicellular systems, some structures began to specialise for different functions: some in respiration, some in waste secretion, and some in locomotion. This was the beginning of complex life. There was no going back from this; the Pandora’s Box of biological creativity had been opened and the dizzying complexity, diversity and beauty of biological life we see around us today is the result.

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About a billion years ago some organisms made another important leap – they began to have sex. Instead of reproducing more or less identical copies of themselves, organisms began creating new, genetically diverse offspring. Sexual reproduction has a number of evolutionary advantages. It acts as a buffer to smooth out harmful mutations while allowing genes to flow around connected populations. These mechanisms make it a creative force that generates genetic diversity and therefore new species. The most successful species are those most suited to their environment and able to cope when that environment changes – what Charles Darwin termed ‘natural selection’. One of Darwin’s radical ideas was that all life on Earth evolved from earlier forms, which he termed ‘descent with modification’. To help think about this look at your parents. You likely look a bit like them, but different somehow. Right? Imagine these minute changes accumulating over 3.5 billion years…

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“Since life began there has been an unbroken chain from the very first living things all the way to you.”

A gorilla in among leaves looking away from the camera

gorilla

Every snail, every daisy, every flea and every monkey has a shared ancestry – all are cousins to some degree. Even more remarkably, by looking at fossil, genetic, physiological, and geographical evidence we can accurately piece together these familial relationships.

We’re more closely related to a gorilla than a wolf because we share a common ancestor more recently with the gorilla (9 million years ago) than the wolf (96 million years ago). In turn, we’re more closely related to the wolf than a tortoise (with which we share a common ancestor 311 million years ago), a spider (796 million years ago), or a banana plant (1,495 million years ago).

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This series of evolutionary relationships can be traced back through time to a hypothetical organism unromantically called the LUCA – the Last Universal Common Ancestor. It’s tempting – but wrong – to think of humans as the top of the tree; that we are in some way superior. We are precisely as evolved as every other Earthling, and merely represent an obscure leaf on a remote branch of the tree of life. However, in spite of this relative evolutionary obscurity, our decisions and actions are of the upmost importance to all inhabitants of Spaceship Earth.

Here in the early years of the 21st century the beauty and diversity of the great cathedral of nature are threatened. Throughout Earth’s history five mass extinctions have swept like waves over the world, wiping out whole branches of the evolutionary tree – the most famous victims being the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. Unlike the dinosaurs, it turns out we are uniquely well-placed to understand the current state of life.

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“Scientific observations from many different disciplines all converge on an uneasy truth. We are living in the eye of a new planetary storm, a sixth mass extinction.”

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Entire groups of Earthlings, from insects to mammals, are in vertiginous decline and as a group falls they take others with it in a game of extinction dominoes. And plants, the foundation of most ecologies, are one of the most threatened groups of all, with over 600 species lost in the last 250 years alone.

The science clearly shows that humans are to blame. From climate change to habitat loss and hunting, this is a wreckage almost entirely of our own making – unlike the dinosaurs who were merely observers of their annihilation. Miserable it may be, but it’s also revelatory: we are the first generation of the first creature able to understand the precariousness of the situation. And the last that may be able to do something about it. A conclusion as terrifying as it is empowering.

From this precipitous perspective it can feel daunting, but I am lifted by the many people, organisations, and countries working together to turn the tide. Elegant science combined with hard-won policy is protecting great swathes of land and ocean, with much more on the way. Costa Rica has shown what’s possible when a government protects huge areas of forest instead of destroying it, providing multiple socio-ecological benefits. The UK announced a new set of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the ‘Blue Belt’, and is inching towards its first Marine National Park in Plymouth. Many are thinking about places in new ways, the radical London National Park City being a consciousness-shifting example.

I’m also buoyed by projects that aim to rejuvenate vast landscapes such as Summit to Sea in Wales and Trees for Life and Cairngorms Connect in Scotland. Ground-breaking scientific research is slowing, and in some cases reversing, extinctions, and species are also being reintroduced to places they were lost from. Wolves in Yellowstone have famously transformed the landscape and about 10 miles away from where I’m writing this, beavers have been released in a Cornish stream, where they are busily restoring a floodplain and boosting biodiversity. Beavers in Cornwall!

A wildflower meadow with yellow, purple, white and red flowers in bloom

meadow

Slowly, too, we are losing our obsession with tidying up and instead learning to leave space for nature to thrive. As I’ve driven around Cornwall this spring I’ve been thrilled that so many road verges have been left uncut and are bursting with wildflowers. Here at Eden, our own verges have been transformed.

As we enter what’s increasingly feeling like the middle age of the Internet, I’m optimistic the renaissance of our time isn’t digital but ecological and instead leads to the large-scale restoration of nature.

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Perhaps above all, I think for these different approaches to succeed, and the declines in nature to be reversed, we need to harness our understanding of the connectedness of life to cultivate a new relationship with the rest of nature. This new relationship should be grounded in a renewed empathy with other living things, not in how much we may be able to profit from their demise.

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This article first appeared in issue 42 of the Eden Magazine, which is available exclusively for Eden Project Supporters, Members and Patrons. Find out more.

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