The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life began oozing across its boiling, methane-saturated surface about a billion years after our planet was born. But how did that happen? In just a few billion years, a hellish ball of melted rock, smashed up by meteorites, became the gorgeous Blue Marble covered in plants, animals, and sparkling ocean waters we know today. Here's our list of ten books you must read if you want to understand this transformation, from the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere to the mass deaths of the dinosaurs.
Illustration by Doug Henderson.
1. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors, by Lynne Margulis and Dorion Sagan
Famed evolutionary biologist Lynne Margulis is known for demonstrating that bacteria should be classified as their own branch on the tree of life, and her classification of these tiny species is now part of every school kid's biology lessons. She was also an expert on symbiosis, the process by which two species form a mutually beneficial unit — and also, many believe, a process that was integral to the evolution of cells and multicellular life. So she's the perfect person to give you a tour of how life evolved on Earth from the first scribbles of chemicals in the global ocean. Readable and fascinating, Microcosmos will help you understand what it really means when scientists say that all life evolved from bacterial slime.
2. Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, by Andrew H. Knoll
Harvard earth scientist Knoll is one of the few people on the planet who has devoted his career to determining the dates on ancient pieces of rock in order to understand the origins of life. This book explores Earth as a "young planet," meaning in the years before the Cambrian Explosion that led to the development of multicellular life that could breathe oxygen. But there were billions of years of evolution before that time, in which single celled creatures lived in a world whose oceans and atmosphere were very different from today. Knoll does a terrific job showing you this lost world, and explaining how he and other scientists use evidence to speculate about what life would have been like billions of years ago.
3. When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time, by Michael Benton
One of the dirty little secrets of evolution is mass extinction. In fact, most of the life you see around you on Earth only exists because, periodically, most species on Earth are wiped out by catastrophic events that kill off so many species that the world's food webs are left with huge gaps that new species can evolve to fill. Many people know about how mammals evolved in the wake of the mass extinction of dinosaurs, but that event was nothing compared to the "Great Dying," a mass extinction 250 million years ago that took out 95 percent of species on the planet. Here, geologist Benton describes this mass extinction — an event he's studied for decades — and explains how it happened, and why it took millions of years for the planet to recover. This is an incredible book, full of mega-volcanoes and weird life forms who disappeared eons ago.
4. The Medea Hypothesis — Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? by Peter Ward
If you don't get enough mass death reading Benton's book, this should be the next book on your list. Ward is a geologist who believes that mass extinction may be the most important force shaping our planet's past and future. Here he describes several mass extinctions in fantastic detail, and explains how they happened. Are we doomed to go through another one? Absolutely, he argues. Then, with alarming clarity, he describes how today's planet is ripe for another mass extinction — and along the way, he introduces you to key concepts in climate change, one of the major causes for extinctions throughout geological time.
5. Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet, by Oliver Morton
Enough with mass death. In this book, Morton introduces us to the single most important life form on Earth: plants. This is a brilliant and fun exploration of how plants evolved, and why photosynthesis (eating sunlight) is one of the greatest inventions of the last 3 billion years. If you've ever wondered why it's important to preserve plant life, this book will provide answers. Plants are crucial to the lifecycles of many other creatures on Earth, and they literally help create the very air that we breathe.
6. Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, by Nick Lane
Speaking of the air we breathe, Nick Lane's book about a humble molecule that transformed the planet is a must-read for anybody who wants to know how Earth got to be so cool. Literally. Without early algae generating oxygen, the planet would never have developed a cooler climate whose atmosphere was conducive to multicellular life. Oxygen was responsible for powering up some of the largest life forms in Earth's history, and it is also responsible for reshaping the landscapes around us. Like plants, oxygen is one of those key components of life on Earth that we easily forget — but when you find out how crucial it is, you'll never look at the world in the same way again. Plus, oxygen has an evil side, destroying our cells even as it gives us life.
7. The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth's Deep History, by Jan Zalasiewicz
Zalasiewicz has written one of those rare science books that is both personal and poetic, as well as illuminating. He begins by looking at a single rock, describing how its location and composition reveal its origin — and then journeys outward from those observations, introducing us to the ways that geologists study the planet and delve into deep time.
8. Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee
This is an incredible, Pulitzer Prize winning collection of long essays by McPhee, who has written about geology and other topics in science for the New Yorker for most of his career. He focuses on the western landscapes of the United States to reveal how geological features are created, how humans have exploited them, and what you are really seeing when you look up at a mountain range covered in firs. This book is a gorgeous introduction to the field of geology and how geologists view the planet — as well as how humans fit into the larger fabric of Earth's long history.
9. Written in Stone: The Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the Story of Life on Earth, by Brian Switek
Geologists lead us backwards in Earth's history, but paleontologists lead us back into life's history. Switek, who covers dinosaurs and paleontology for the Smithsonian, leads us on a fun, engaging tour of ancient life and how we know anything about it at all. We've all heard of fossils, but this book will help you understand where they come from, and how scientists figure out what ancient life was like from a few shards of bone. If you can't actually join a bunch of paleontologists on a dig for bones in some remote landscape, reading Switek's book is the next best thing to being there. It's perfect for the armchair adventurer.
10. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould
Gould is one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the modern era, and he was legendary for his wit and ability to translate difficult concepts into terms everyone could understand. Here he offers a lesson about how evolution works by introducing us to the Burgess Shale, an area in the Canadian Rockies where 600 million-year-old creatures' bodies have been marvelously preserved in the ancient rocks. Gould brings us back to the now-vanished sea these animals and plants inhabited, and explains what makes the Burgess Shale such a unique scientific discovery.
Armed with the knowledge in these books, you'll begin to grasp the incredibly strange — and unbelievably long — history of our planet. Life rose and fell; mountains slid into the ocean. The atmosphere itself changed, multiple times. And today, geologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary biologists are sifting through the evidence left behind by these vanished worlds, trying to piece together the story of what came before us, and how we got here.