Life on a Young Planet

Recommendation: This is awesome, in the literal sense

Where to read: Armchair, with a highlighter

Read with: Guinness, just not while you’re reading the Introduction ’cause you need to pay attention to that bit

In brief: I went way down the rabbit hole on PBS Eons, and then did what I always do and bought a bunch of books. This is a fascinating history of life on earth from the speculative beginnings of life on earth to the Cambrian Explosion, so there’s lots about bacteria and nothing about dinosaurs. Sorry kids.


Life on a Young Planet is a narrative history of early life on earth. It is also the story of scientific discovery, enterprise and the slow accumulation of knowledge and an exploration of the grand themes of early evolution and what that can tell us about how evolution works more generally. Crucially, Knoll’s central point is that evolution is the product of a dialogue between ecology and geology – life hasn’t just developed on its own, but on and as the result of an ever changing, unstable planet shaped by plate tectonics and volcanoes and complex earth systems.

I do, however, want to suggest that there is a fourth aspect to this, which is a riposte to religious claims that early pre-Cambrian evolution is something of a black box and by default a problem for evolution as a theory. This might have been an issue for Darwin because all he had to work with are post-Cambrian fossils of well-developed animals but nothing beforehand but we now have micro-fossils and biochemistry and a whole raft of tools of learn more about early life, rendering this critique somewhat absurd.

It is also striking how literary it is – one does not usually expect a palaeontologist to go around citing poetry or the classics but he does. It’s rather delightful really. He is also frequently very funny, providing much appreciated levity in what could otherwise be quite a tad dry.

Also, there’s a chapter on astrobiology, so that’s pretty sweet.

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