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Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth
Princeton University Press, 2003
288 pp., $39.50
Catherine H. Crouch
A persistent cultural stereotype of scientists is that we are out to dominate and exploit the natural world that we study. In Life on a Young Planet, distinguished paleontologist Andrew Knoll wants to turn this stereotype on its head, replacing scientist-as-conquistador with scientist-as-steward. In the opening pages, he writes, "by coming to grips with life's long evolutionary history, we begin to understand something of our own place in the world, including our responsibility as planetary stewards." Knoll has set out to write nothing less than a narrative history of how life arose on Earth—"science's creation story," he calls it—assuming, or at least hoping, that if we know the story, we will see that it is humanity's job to preserve the rich diversity of life on Earth which is presently our inheritance.
Knoll begins his book by challenging another cultural stereotype: the pedantic scientist who reduces marvelous phenomena to sterile terms. To Knoll, the findings of his field are exciting and wonderful, and he hopes to share that wonder with his readers. Of course, this is to exchange one stereotype for another—the scientist as Impresario of Wonder—but Knoll's writing is eloquent and engaging, and the story is a fascinating one. How did the Earth's atmosphere go from being rich in sulfur to being rich in oxygen, without which life as we know it today could not survive? How did life arise from nonliving chemicals? What was the nature of those first life forms? How did those first life forms develop into the amazing variety of complex creatures we see today that inhabit nearly every imaginable niche of our planet—even hot springs and chasms deep in the sea floor? While much remains to be understood about each of these questions, what is known is amazing.
The ingenuity of paleontologists is also impressive. Knoll describes the methods as well as the findings of his field, showing us how he and his colleagues deduce the story from the many kinds of records that early life ...