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Life on a Young Planet: The First Three…

Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on… (2003)

by Andrew H. Knoll

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Andrew H. Knoll is a paleontologist who is particularly conversant with the integrative approaches of modern day evolutionary science. Rooted in the rocks, he writes with skill about the geological and geophysical processes at work in early earth formation, and their implications for the evolution of life. He explains the complex geochemistry that became, in time, a biochemistry. He describes the so-called evo-devo (I.e., evolutionary developmental biology) revolution with verve-both as an observer, and a participant/contributor. He describes in some detail how the evolution of life is largely one of microbiologic changes through geologic time. Some critics fault him for leaving the good stuff for the end-a bizarre criticism given that the "good stuff" (I.e., complex multi-cellular animal life) has only been around since very recent times in geological terms. Knoll deftly defeats this prejudice by pointing out that while animals are the kings of morphological variety, it is the microorganisms that are the exemplars of metabolism. Microbes have evolved diverse mechanisms for surviving on a catastrophically evolving planet. It is in fact, the microbes that made the planet habitable for animals. This is a story as epic and heroic as any produced by evolutions most complex, and ridiculously recent, product. If I had a quibble with the book, it was with the decision to include the final chapter about the possible Martian origin of terrestrial life. Not to say this story wasn't interesting, but it would have been better left to another book. Finally, Knoll's conclusion attempts to reconcile the seemingly ever-opposed science and religion and is reminiscent of Stephen J. Gould's "twin magisteria" argument. The stronger part of his conclusion reminded us that past may be prologue: That current action or inaction may have consequences in what could be, but doesn't have to be, our own evolutionary endgame. ( )
1 vote Teiresias1960 | Feb 24, 2018 |
Quite an interesting book on life on Earth before the Cambrian. Being a supposed paleontologist, I am embarrassed to say I didn’t know all that much about what was going on. Like any paleontology book, there has to be a mix of geology and biology; both are well done.

The oldest hints of life are carbon isotope ratios. Not the familiar carbon-14; there’s no trace left of that. Instead it’s the ratio of the stable and abundant isotope carbon-12 to the stable but rare isotope carbon-13. Carbon compounds produced by biological processes tend to be enriched in carbon-12. (This is, unfortunately, a place where author Andrew Knoll does not provide a good explanation. The most facile response would be that the production of a carbon compound requires some sort of chemical reaction; molecules containing carbon-13 will be marginally heavy than molecules containing carbon-12, will move slower, and thus be less likely to react to make something else. However, that doesn’t explain why biological processes as opposed to any process results in enrichment. My guess is that synthesis of carbon compounds in living organisms requires not just a chemical reaction, but a lot of chemical reactions, and things get fractionated a little more with each step. Not sure, though). At any rate, tiny flecks of graphite in rocks around 3.5 Gya tend to be enriched in carbon-12, perhaps implying production by something alive.

By the time the Gunflint Chert was deposited – around 1.875 Gya – the oceans were teaming with life. I’ve hammered out chunks of the chert (Upper Peninsula – it’s hard – wear safety glasses), hauled them back to the lab, cut them up on a diamond saw, polished them thin, mounted them on slides, and found zillions of little filaments. The most interesting thing was a little umbrella-shaped affair (rather odd for a bacterium to have that much structure) identifiable from the literature as belonging to the genus Kakabekia. Kakabekia was known at the time (it’s since been discovered elsewhere) from two places – the Proterozoic Gunflint Chert and the latrines of Harlech Castle in Wales. Some sort of record and an indication of an ammonia-rich, reducing environment.

By 750 Mya there are definite eukaryote fossils exquisitely preserved in phosphates from the Doushantuo Formation in China. All very tiny – no more than a few cells. In the latest preCambrian – the Ediacaran – there are macrofossils. Exactly what they are fossils of is still up for debate; it’s been argued that although the Ediacara “fauna” sometimes resemble extant groups like Cnidaria, they are actually members of a whole other kingdom – the Vendobiota – with a completely different body plan from animals. The situation is confused because Ediacaran fossils almost always turn up in siltstones and sandstones – environments with enough energy to make fossilization difficult.

All this almost makes the Cambrian seem anticlimactic. I’m not doing justice here to extensive and enlightening discussions of the how of evolutionary changes from goo to us; but I recommend reading the book. Well illustrated and with good maps. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
An excellent introduction to what we know about the earliest life on earth, and how we learned it. The author doesn't just tell us what is known, he gives us chapter and verse about the controversies, disputes, triumphs, and disappointments of Precambrian paleontology. The downside is that, while I found it relatively easy reading as a biologist, the book perhaps is a bit technical for lay people who may not know what the actual difference is between a protostome and a deuterostome, and might need a bit more explication about just what the lac operon is and why it's important. If you already have that basic knowledge at hand, the book is a pleasure to read, and the author casually drops Baby Boomer culture all throughout, which helps to increase interest (at least for a Baby Boomer who gets the more esoteric references; later generations might be scratching their heads at times and going "huh?"). The epilogue was a bit of a let down, as the author attempts to please everyone, and almost certainly winds up pleasing almost no one as he discusses the implications for religion. Other than that, a masterpiece of good writing and good science. ( )
  Devil_llama | Dec 31, 2011 |
Wow. This is a most impressive book.

The subject matter is naturally inherently fascinating, namely what is known of evolution before the Cambrian explosion (both paleontology, trace fossils, and molecular biology).
But even beyond the subject matter, the way the book is written is riveting; at each stage trying to explain how what is known was learned. ( )
  name99 | Nov 16, 2006 |
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This volume distills the thoughts of a quarter of a century spent trying to understand the early history of life.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691120293, Paperback)

Australopithecines, dinosaurs, trilobites--such fossils conjure up images of lost worlds filled with vanished organisms. But in the full history of life, ancient animals, even the trilobites, form only the half-billion-year tip of a nearly four-billion-year iceberg. Andrew Knoll explores the deep history of life from its origins on a young planet to the incredible Cambrian explosion, presenting a compelling new explanation for the emergence of biological novelty.

The very latest discoveries in paleontology--many of them made by the author and his students--are integrated with emerging insights from molecular biology and earth system science to forge a broad understanding of how the biological diversity that surrounds us came to be. Moving from Siberia to Namibia to the Bahamas, Knoll shows how life and environment have evolved together through Earth's history. Innovations in biology have helped shape our air and oceans, and, just as surely, environmental change has influenced the course of evolution, repeatedly closing off opportunities for some species while opening avenues for others.

Readers go into the field to confront fossils, enter the lab to discern the inner workings of cells, and alight on Mars to ask how our terrestrial experience can guide exploration for life beyond our planet. Along the way, Knoll brings us up-to-date on some of science's hottest questions, from the oldest fossils and claims of life beyond the Earth to the hypothesis of global glaciation and Knoll's own unifying concept of ''permissive ecology.''

In laying bare Earth's deepest biological roots, Life on a Young Planet helps us understand our own place in the universe--and our responsibility as stewards of a world four billion years in the making.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:05 -0400)

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