Overview:

For Earth Day, read Henry Gee's "A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, which asks what our human legacy will be in millions of years.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

In honor of Earth Day, you should consider reading this wonderful book, A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters by Henry Gee.

Mr. Gee is a senior editor at Nature magazine and the author of numerous books, and he has been a guest on several radio and TV talk shows.

He knows how to write for the intelligent non-specialist. And his writing is superb.

The story of our planet is riveting, especially since Mr. Gee includes hundreds of animals for each epoch whose skeletons have been discovered in more recent years. We’re way beyond the mention of a few antique creatures we know so well, like the Triceratops, Byronosaurus, and Pterodactyl.

He also includes a history of plant life and insect life, and the mechanisms of natural selection that have kept the menagerie of life humming along for billions of years.

You may be cured of thinking the story of earth is ‘about humans.’ For one thing, there was a vast and lengthy prologue of living things before mammals even arrived on the scene.

The several extinctions of life (sometimes nearly complete extinction of living things) are rendered by Gee like a murder mystery story. And then he’ll say something along the lines of, “In a mere eight million years, life reemerged.”

I cannot overstate the effect this book had upon me. ‘Awe’ is too anemic a term to describe my attitude toward the mystery of life on our planet, and the tenacity of life. It would be absolute vanity to think that we humans could ‘end’ life on earth or that we could be alive to see ‘the end of the world.’

The later chapters and the epilogue speak of the future of our species. I thought I knew the future of our species—everything that has arisen on this planet is terminal and nothing lasts. But I wasn’t fully prepared for what Gee predicts for us and for our “legacy.”

So, what do you think our legacy will be five hundred million years from now?

As I said, I thought I knew our future. But Gee’s book impressed me with details of that future, and I felt a little sunk by the revelation.

No matter. The story of planet earth is not about us. It’s about something much, much grander.  Read Gee and see.

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of atheism and other classes since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA...