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1.4: A Brief History of Our Planet - Biology


During this course we will repeatedly return to the unanswered question of the Origin of Life. We do this because:

  • It's the Mother of All Biology Questions
  • It requires that we define Life
  • It encourages us to appreciate the diversity of Life's own solutions to a core "Design Challenge", the challenge in this case being- How to harvest the energy required to build Life?

Discussion of Origins requires that we understand (to the extent that geologists can tell us) what conditions were like on Earth when life first arose. Life is based on the ability to collect energy by tapping into chemical (including photochemical) reactions. Scientists studying origins and evolution need to understand how the chemistry of Earth, particularly of the Earth's atmosphere, has changed during the approx. 4 billion years since the solidification of this planet (or at least of its crust). Interestingly, Life itself has changed the chemistry of the Earth's atmosphere radically, and in turn Life has expanded its capacity to acquire and store energy in response to these Life-generated changes. If you're interested in more detail, you might start with the very nice summary of the history of our planet's atmosphere at the website for Prof. Perry Samson's course on global climate change at the University of Michigan.

The Earth and its moon are thought to be about 4.54 billion years old. This estimate is based on evidence from radiometric dating of meteorite material, together with other substrate material from Earth and the moon. Earth has an unusually large amount of water for an inner solar system planet, and it is thought that this water was brought to a young Earth through a collision with a characteristically water-rich outer solar system planetoid, named Theia. This collision pulverized both planets, which re-formed as our current Earth and its unusually large moon. This Earth, at first, lost its hydrogen-rich atmosphere to space, but these gasses were replaced through emission from deep within the Earth- these emissions continue today.

Earth's atmosphere changed radically during its history, from a reducing, H2-rich chemistry, to an oxidizing, O2-rich chemistry. As we'll see, Life needs to extract energy in different ways from these different environments; they each provide their own challenges. The temperature of the Earth has also changed radically ranging from extremely hot (at which point we assume there was no Life, as Life requires liquid water, but perhaps this assumption reflects our limited imagination) to a Snowball Earth, entirely encased in ice (though there was liquid water beneath that ice).Evidence indicates that during the first two billion years of Earth’s existence, the atmosphere was anoxic, meaning that there was no molecular oxygen (O2 ...there was of course oxygen, the atom, but these atoms were tied up in other chemical forms). Therefore, only those organisms that can grow without O2anaerobic organisms — were able to live. Both chemo-autotrophic organisms (organisms that make use of chemical reactions occurring in their environment to power their growth) and heterotrophic organisms (organisms that break down complex chemicals to acquire energy) rapidly evolved once liquid water was present. Photoautotrophic organisms that convert solar energy into chemical energy appeared within one billion years of the formation of Earth. The cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, evolved from simpler photoautotrophs one billion years later. Cyanobacteria, still with us today, are able to acquire energy from sunlight and water, producing O2 as a waste product of photosynthesis. This waste product changed the nature of the planet, and the nature of life itself. Increased atmospheric oxygen allowed the development of more efficient O2-utilizing catabolic pathways. It also opened up the land to increased colonization, because some O2 is converted into O3 (ozone) and ozone effectively absorbs the ultraviolet light that would otherwise cause lethal damage to DNA. Ultimately, the increase in atmospheric O2 concentrations allowed the evolution of other, more complex life forms.

A nice summary of the history of O2 on Earth, try the Wikipedia site Geological History of Oxygen. You'll find this is a Biology story just as much as it is a Geology story.


History of Biology

B iology is the study of life on earth. The History of Biology however, focuses on the advent of life on earth, right from the ancient times. Biological discoveries have a remarkable impact on the human society. Traditionally, the history of biology is diversified into two wings – studies on medicine and theories of natural history. Medicines are not results of current biological discoveries.

Have you heard names like Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen of Pergamum? Well, these eminent people were first explorers of the anatomy and physiology of living organisms. Their works focused on the naturalist leanings of organisms, especially animals. Theophrastus, the most notable work of Aristotle still holds a valuable place in the hearts of our modern-day scientists. Do you know why? Theophrastus makes an enormous contribution to the study of zoology, botany, ecology, and taxonomy, all of which are essential branches of biology.

Awareness about medicines became prominent during the middle ages. It is believed that Islamic scholars working by the Galenic and Aristotelian traditions were the first to introduce medicinal science. Neolithic Revolution was a big turning point in the history of biology. This age-old revolution dated 10,000 years ago brought practices of farming and animal husbandry into the limelight.

Much before the study of human beings, biology referred to the study of plant and animal life. Works on botanical studies by Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) and ‘The Art on Falconry,’ introducing the first resource to ornithology by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) played a pivotal role in shaping the natural history of biology.

Botany flourished during the Renaissance and early modern period. Plants were then referred to as ‘materia medica’ because studies proved that plants brimmed with amazing medicinal properties. Not just the Greek culture but ancient cultures of Egypt, China, Mesopotamia, and India had an immense contribution to the evolution of biology. From classical Chinese medicine, formulated by theories by Yin and Yang and the Five Phases to the Indian introduction of Ayurveda, discovery, and study of medicinal sciences became highly popular. Zhuangzi, the noted Taoist philosopher, first brought his ideas about evolution on the boards during the 4th Century. His philosophy stated that species differ in attributes in response to diverse environmental conditions. Developments began springing in gradually during the 17th and 18th Century.

Theories regarding a quantitative approach to physiology and Santorio’s studies on Metabolism ruled the charts. It was only during the 19th Century when several disciplines of biological science were introduced like embryology, cytology, morphology, bacteriology, paleontology, geography and geology.

The roots of Biology, the term coined after combining the Greek words of ‘Bios’ meaning life and ‘Logy’ meaning science dates back to the secular traditions of ancient philosophies. Learning about the history of biology is an attempt to understand the evolution of science.

Here is the history of several branches of biology.

History of Anatomy

History of Biochemistry

History of Biotechnology

History of Botany

History of Cell Biology

History of Ecology

Complete History of Evolution

History of Genetics

History of Immunology

History of Microbiology

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Here are some excellent resources on various historians and scientists who have contributed to biological studies from the dawn of time:


A Brief History of the Human Genome Project
This chapter summarizes human genetics and its history with simple descriptions of modes of inheritance using the commonly-used terms from the genetic literature. It also describes current efforts to create genetic maps and to sequence the 3 billion bases in the human genome.


Biographies – the Scientists
Alphabetical list of scientists, including biologists, each with a precis of the scientists life and achievements. Links to deeper and more extensive materials.

Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873)
Adam Sedgwick was born on March 22, 1785, the third of seven children of an Anglican vicar, in Dent, Yorkshire, England. His home life was happy like so many geologists, young Adam spent time rambling through the countryside, looking at and collecting rocks and fossils. Despite his family’s modest means, Sedgwick attended nearby Sedbergh School, and then entered Trinity College at Cambridge University, as a “sizar” — a type of scholarship student.

Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)
Leeuwenhoek was an unlikely scientist. He came from a family of tradesmen, received no higher education, and knew no languages other than his native Dutch.

This would have been enough to exclude him from the scientific community of his time. With skill, diligence, and an open mind free of the scientific dogma, he succeeded in making some of the most important discoveries in biology. It was he who discovered bacteria, free-living and parasitic microscopic protists, and much more.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)
Though Aristotle’s work in zoology was not without errors, it was the grandest biological synthesis of the time, and remained the ultimate authority for many centuries after his death. His observations on the anatomy of octopus, cuttlefish, crustaceans, and many other marine invertebrates are remarkably accurate, and could only have been made from first-hand experience with dissection.

Biography of Francis Harry Compton Crick
Biography of Francis Harry Compton Crick from the Nobel Foundation.

Biography of James Dewey Watson
Biography of James Dewey Watson from the Nobel Foundation.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)
Carl Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus, is often called the Father of Taxonomy. His system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in wide use today (with many changes). His ideas on classification have influenced generations of biologists during and after his own lifetime, even those opposed to the philosophical and theological roots of his work.

DNA from the Beginning
DNA from the Beginning is an animated primer on molecular biology and genetics. It goes through the major discoveries and experiments from Mendel’s peas to the 21st century’s genetic age of the Human Genome Project.

Early Classics in Biogeography, Distribution, and Diversity Studies: To 1950
The following bibliography and full-text archive is designed as a service to advanced students and researchers engaged in work in biogeography, biodiversity, history of science, and related studies. The subjects involved touch on fields ranging from ecology, conservation, systematics and physical geography, to evolutionary biology, cultural biogeography, paleobiology, and bioclimatology–but have in common a relevance to the study of geographical distribution and diversity.

Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897)
Edward Drinker Cope was an American paleontologist and evolutionist. He was one of the founders of the Neo- Lamarckian school of evolutionary thought. This school believed that changes in developmental (embryonic) timing, not natural selection, was the driving force of evolution. In 1867, Cope suggested that most changes in species occured by coordinated additions to the ontogeny of all the individuals in a species.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
As a naturalist, Darwin formulated one of the first formal theories on evolution in Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796). He also presented his evolutionary ideas in verse, in particular in the posthumously published poem The Temple of Nature. Although he did not come up with natural selection, he did discuss ideas that his grandson elaborated on sixty years later, such as how life evolved from a single common ancestor, forming “one living filament”.

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)
Ernst Haeckel, much like Herbert Spencer, was always quotable, even when wrong. Although best known for the famous statement “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, he also coined many words commonly used by biologists today, such as phylum, phylogeny, and ecology. On the other hand, Haeckel also stated that “politics is applied biology”, a quote used by Nazi propagandists.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)
Without a doubt, Georges Cuvier possessed one of the finest minds in history. Almost single-handedly, he founded vertebrate paleontology as a scientific discipline and created the comparative method of organismal biology, an incredibly powerful tool. It was Cuvier who firmly established the fact of the extinction of past lifeforms. He contributed an immense amount of research in vertebrate and invertebrate zoology and paleontology, and also wrote and lectured on the history of science.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
100 years before Darwin, Buffon, in his Historie Naturelle, a 44 volume encyclopedia describing everything known about the natural world, wrestled with the similarities of humans and apes and even talked about common ancestry of Man and apes. Although Buffon believed in organic change, he did not provide a coherent mechanism for such changes. He thought that the environment acted directly on organisms through what he called “organic particles“.

Georgius Agricola (1494-1555)
Georg Bauer, better known by the Latin version of his name Georgius Agricola, is considered the founder of geology as a discipline. His work paved the way for further systematic study of the Earth and of its rocks, minerals, and fossils. He made fundamental contributions to mining geology and metallurgy, mineralogy, structural geology, and paleontology.

History of Genetics: Professor Michael Dietrich, Dartmouth College, maintains a web site of useful resources on the history of genetics. Link.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829)
Lamarck’s scientific theories were largely ignored or attacked during his lifetime Lamarck never won the acceptance and esteem of his colleagues Buffon and Cuvier, and he died in poverty and obscurity. Today, the name of Lamarck is associated merely with a discredited theory of heredity, the “inheritance of acquired traits.” However, Charles Darwin, Lyell, Haeckel, and other early evolutionists acknowledged him as a great zoologist and as a forerunner of evolution.

John Ray (1628-1705)
One of the most eminent naturalists of his time, John Ray was also an influential philosopher and theologian. Ray is often referred to as the father of natural history in Britain.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
It may seem unusual to include Leonardo da Vinci in a list of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. Leonardo was and is best known as an artist. Yet he was far more than a great artist: he had one of the best scientific minds of his time. He carried out research in fields ranging from architecture and civil engineering to astronomy to anatomy and zoology to geography, geology and paleontology.

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)
One of the great scientists of his day, and one of the “founding fathers” of the modern American scientific tradition, Louis Agassiz remains something of a historical enigma. A great systematist and paleontologist, a renowned teacher and tireless promoter of science in America, he was also a lifelong opponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yet even his most critical attacks on evolution have provided evolutionary biologists with insights.

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur was born on December 27, 1822 in Dole, in the region of Jura, France. His discovery that most infectious diseases are caused by germs, known as the “germ theory of disease”, is one of the most important in medical history. His work became the foundation for the science of microbiology, and a cornerstone of modern medicine.

Mary Anning (1799-1847)
Even though Mary Anning’s life has been made the subject of several books and articles, comparatively little is known about her life, and many people are unaware of her contributions to paleontology in its early days as a scientific discipline. How can someone describe as ‘the greatest fossilist the world ever knew’ be so obscure that even many paleontologists are not aware of her contribution? She was a woman in a man’s England.

Nicholas Steno (1638-1686)
Despite a relatively brief scientific career, Nicholas Steno’s work on the formation of rock layers and the fossils they contain was crucial to the development of modern geology. The principles he stated continue to be used today by geologists and paleontologists.

Patrick Matthew (1790-1874)
He was not a trained scientist, and his evolutionary insights lie buried in the middle of his books and articles on agriculture and politics. Yet he developed a theory of natural selection nearly thirty years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, with both deep differences and remarkable similarities to Darwin’s theory.

Richard Owen (1804-1892)
Owen synthesized French anatomical work, especially from Cuvier and Geoffroy, with German transcendental anatomy. He gave us many of the terms still used today in anatomy and evolutionary biology, including “homology”. Owen famously defined homology in 1843 as “the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function.”

Robert Hooke (1635-1703)
His name is somewhat obscure today, due in part to the enmity of his famous, influential, and extremely vindictive colleague, Sir Isaac Newton. Yet Hooke was perhaps the single greatest experimental scientist of the seventeenth century. His interests knew no bounds, ranging from physics and astronomy, to chemistry, biology, and geology, to architecture and naval technology.

The Alfred Russel Wallace Page
My site on Alfred Russel Wallace contains the full-text of over 100 of his writings, extensive bibliographies, and various kinds of commentary. It is one of the largest history of science-oriented sites on the Web.

The History of Cell Biology
Too many colleagues forget what is already known in scientific literature. Acting as independent researchers they have ignored the findings of their predecessors. I discovered by searching the Internet that web-sites often include contradictory descriptions of the same facts or events. If study of scientific history was adequately funded, we would be compelled to write it anew.

The Works of Charles Darwin Online
Links to full-length, online versions of Charles Darwin’s most important books: The Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man.

The World of Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His books about evolution and science include The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, and most recently, Unweaving the Rainbow.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)
Thomas Henry Huxley was one of the first adherents to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and did more than anyone else to advance its acceptance among scientists and the public alike.

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)
Malthus was a political economist who was concerned about, what he saw as, the decline of living conditions in nineteenth-century England. He blamed this decline on three elements: The overproduction of young the inability of resources to keep up with the rising human population and the irresponsibility of the lower classes. To combat this, Malthus suggested the family size of the lower class ought to be regulated such that low-income families do not produce more children than they can support.

William Paley (1743-1805)
His most influential contribution to biological thought was his book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, first published in 1802. In this book, Paley laid out a full exposition of natural theology, the belief that the nature of God could be understood by reference to His creation, the natural world.

Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire (1772-1844)
Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire was born on April 15, 1772, in Étampes, near Paris, France. Receiving a law degree in 1790, he went on to study medicine and science in Paris, at the College du Cardinal Lemoine. When the Reign of Terror struck, Geoffroy risked his life to save some of his teachers and colleagues from the guillotine. Managing to keep his own head, Geoffroy was appointed a professor of vertebrate zoology at the Jardin des Plantes.


The Timeline Of Earth

We’ve evolved here on Earth, and for tens of thousands of years, we just thought the Earth is also the universe, or at least the most important and the biggest part of it. Our brains have been adapted to the basic survival needs.

So we can deal with the moderately sized objects which have moderate velocity, and we can conceptualize small numbers like 1, 2, 50. But when the numbers get bigger than that, the problem begins: our puny brains cannot conceptualize them anymore.

The larger a number grows, the harder it becomes to deal with.

Take the age of the Earth, which is almost 4.6 billion years. We don’t have an intuitive sense of what this number means. But, visualization can help: we can better understand things if we visualize them. Author Andy Bergmann just did that. He created a Timeline of Earth to get a better sense of how key events relate in time over our planet’s 4.6 billion year history. It’s hard to get a sense of how vast it is until you can see it laid out visually.


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Before bed, I like to read books that are interesting yet willingly release me to sleep. (I like page-turners too, don't get me wrong but they're not a before-bed-friendly book, y'know?) Human Errors is an excellent way for me to create a ravine between screen time and bed time, and it's led to some interesting conversations, too.

Anyway, it's enjoyable. It's surprising. It's amusing. At times, it's absurd. I recommend it.

Part of the reason I was smiling so much while reading ‘Human Errors’ is knowing deeply religious people who believe evolution is bunk would probably think Mr. Lents is doing Satan’s work or is a woefully misguided soul. Unfortunately for their ilk, the author is a biology professor who knows how to explain evolution in layman terms. You do not need one of the big brains to understand what is written in his entertaining book. A long-term religious friend who does not believe in evolution once argued with me that he knew a science professor who said only God could have created such a perfect specimen as man. I am agnostic and not a scientist but even I knew that his “science professor” friend was speaking a big heaping mound of caca. Humans are far from perfect. If anything, like all living things on earth, we are a continual evolutionary work in progress. Maybe my religious friend misunderstood the guy and he had said he was a séance professor (if there’s such a thing.)

‘Human Errors’ helps explain the many flaws that currently reside with the Homo-sapiens body. Sweet fancy Moses, it is quite the list, people. Mr. Lents gives a general overview of the most obvious quirks in our bodies. As he states the book would’ve been much bigger to include all the design flaws. Instead the author’s work is only 216-pages long. Its feet are firmly planted in science. What is known is explained. What is unknown, the author serves up the most common hypotheses. ‘Human Errors’ was published in 2018. It covers such areas as the less-than-perfect human eyes, nose, throat, neck, back, knee, superfluous bones, our need for nutrients, obesity, nonfunctional DNA, genetic diseases, human reproduction, autoimmune system, allergies, cancer, and the brain. The book compares how much more efficient the same elements are in other animals. In many cases, humans are the defective outliers. ‘Human Errors’ also includes helpful black-and-white illustrations which are scattered throughout the work. The Epilogue chapter takes a stab at explaining where we and the planet may be heading. Some of it is hopeful while other parts are darned right scary.

Evolution is a continual random process and never quite complete. It’s neither good nor bad. Evolutionary innovations are a tradeoff. ‘Human Errors’ will help you understand why many everyday body functions occur. As Mr. Lents aptly states, “Lurking in our anatomy are some odd arrangements, inefficient designs, and even outright defects. Mostly these are fairly neutral they don’t hinder our ability to live and thrive. If they did, evolution would have handled them by now.” For people who believe that we are the center of God’s great plan, ‘Human Errors’ may be unsettling. The author stresses that human evolution is more luck than anything. He is correct. The book is a fun, educational, quick read. I guess I’ll have to stop telling everyone that I, and ONLY I, am evolution's most perfect specimen.

(If you are interested in a clear fun explanation of evolution, I wholeheartedly recommend ‘Why Evolution is True’ by Jerry A. Coyne.)


A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves

Having already read about the topics covered in this book from schooling, I felt this book was a kind of just a "refresher" of information for me. However, it is still a fascinating book on cosmology, biology, and geology. (great section on how Nebulas are created)

This information is easily understandable, so I would recommend this to anyone who would like to discover how our Earth works, how it was created, and the last four billion years of its history (that we know of so far). Having already read about the topics covered in this book from schooling, I felt this book was a kind of just a "refresher" of information for me. However, it is still a fascinating book on cosmology, biology, and geology. (great section on how Nebulas are created)

This information is easily understandable, so I would recommend this to anyone who would like to discover how our Earth works, how it was created, and the last four billion years of its history (that we know of so far). . more

I LOVED this book on so many levels.

I loved that it reminded me of how fleeting, and how severely insignificant we are.

I loved that lulled me into perspective.

I loved that it could successfully equate the macro-universe with the micro-elements of our planet, and make that all make perfect sense.

I loved how it concluded that nothing is predictable, that even the physics of numeracy is actually weirdly unpredictable, at least for our brains at this point in time.

I absolutely loved the introdu I LOVED this book on so many levels.

I loved that it reminded me of how fleeting, and how severely insignificant we are.

I loved that lulled me into perspective.

I loved that it could successfully equate the macro-universe with the micro-elements of our planet, and make that all make perfect sense.

I loved how it concluded that nothing is predictable, that even the physics of numeracy is actually weirdly unpredictable, at least for our brains at this point in time.

I absolutely loved the introduction of a new, exciting and growing genre of study -- Big History -- and how the author made me wish fervently that I had followed his career path (ah, regret. ).

And I loved how it made me feel LUCKY in every way. And like a winner -- we won! we're here, you guys! -- and how we're important to our offspring and to all of Earth's future, but not important at all, really, on an individual level.

Highly, highly recommend this book. I consider it one of my best this year! . more

I just love Alvarez. He did more to change my world view than almost any other living person. He opened my eyes (and countless other peoples&apos) by providing for an explanation that transcended my ability to initially accept. Before his explanation for his comet, creationist roamed the earth, now they are rarer but unfortunately not extinct (sure in America they are about 45% creationist but they hide that fact from rational thinking beings. It used to be they were in your face, but seldom anymore I just love Alvarez. He did more to change my world view than almost any other living person. He opened my eyes (and countless other peoples') by providing for an explanation that transcended my ability to initially accept. Before his explanation for his comet, creationist roamed the earth, now they are rarer but unfortunately not extinct (sure in America they are about 45% creationist but they hide that fact from rational thinking beings. It used to be they were in your face, but seldom anymore). The understanding of the earth and human's place on it was remade because of that comet 66 million years ago for which he offered proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The pieces of the puzzle were put in place and the narrative was provided principally by Alvarez (and a few of his colleagues), and he knows way more about Geology and minerals than I'm capable of ever understanding. BTW, I give him a great compliment by providing the world as he saw it has a solution like a puzzle. It's possible the world has no structure (see Wittgenstein's Tractacus, e.g.).

But my gratitude does not make a great book. To make a great book tell me things I don't already know. I read all books and Great Course lectures with "Big History" in the title. I can't get enough on the topic. I'm always more interested in the universal rather than the particular. There's a story to be told about the universe as a whole and how there is this incredibly contingent and chaotic component that gets created from a recursive (a function that calls itself) algorithm (logos as John the Apostle would say).

There's hints of a great narrative within this book, but it never gets flushed out. The pieces that are needed in order to bake an apple pie from scratch (from Gods perspective) or end up creating you or me can not be easily created. The comet that destroyed the dinosaurs, the creation of the moon, the Alps as a barrier, the placement of the Ohio river, the 3 billion year journey from single cell to multi-cell, the acquisition of the mitochondria at some unknown time by an eukaryotic cell, everything has to be just right and all, as everything (within our universe), has to be because something caused it to be that way and the sensitivities due to initial conditions (chaos) made the prediction impossible. Laplace and his mechanistic universe with an all seeing and all knowing machine (God) would never really be able to predict it since it can never predict its own effect caused by its observing. All of those items are within this book, but only loosely cohesively.

The author mostly has just threads that could be tied together. Sometimes he sneaks into 'pernicious teleological' thinking by assuming the existence of something had a purpose in it of itself ("the hand is made for grabbing because it does it so well", not his example, of course, but he does seem to give too much credence to fine tuning). The contingent universe and the contingent making of an apple pie (illusion of "apple pie" is borrowed from Sagan) may not never be. I think the author clearly leans towards a contingent universe. His example of the failure of the Spanish Armada leads me to think that.

I was reluctant to read this book because I expected there would be little new in the book for me, and I was right. For all authors, assume your readers are interested in learning about the topic so much that they have already read books that cover the same kind of topics. Give me things I don't already know, or give me a narrative that ties the pieces together in such way that I've never had thought about it before. The author is infinitely smarter and wiser than me, but wow me with a narrative. . more

This was quite an interesting journey. I wasn&apost always on board with the way he broke things up, but I liked the broad overview of so many segments of time in various ways. He gives basic overviews of different events like the Big Bang to the formation of Earth, how plate tectonics shaped human history, & a variety of interesting journeys of our evolution through time. Check out
http://www.chronozoom.com/
which has timelines of historical events, including some deep time.

I wasn&apost thrilled with hi This was quite an interesting journey. I wasn't always on board with the way he broke things up, but I liked the broad overview of so many segments of time in various ways. He gives basic overviews of different events like the Big Bang to the formation of Earth, how plate tectonics shaped human history, & a variety of interesting journeys of our evolution through time. Check out
http://www.chronozoom.com/
which has timelines of historical events, including some deep time.

I wasn't thrilled with his probability analysis at the end. Yes, a lot of improbable events came down to creating me, including huge numbers of sperm throughout time, but that's more the realm of philosophy or a fun theme of multiple universes in SF. I'm more interested in the practicality of how it all came together.

Still, it was well narrated & very interesting all the way through. Definitely recommended. . more

A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves by Walter Alvarez

“A Most Improbable Journey” is an awe-inspiring and accessible history of our planet and ourselves that combines the cosmos, earth, life and humanity. Famed geologist and professor at the University of California, Berkely, Walter Alvarez takes the reader on a stimulating ride through our planet’s history and the incredible occurrences that have led us to where we are today. This inspiring 256-page book includes A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves by Walter Alvarez

“A Most Improbable Journey” is an awe-inspiring and accessible history of our planet and ourselves that combines the cosmos, earth, life and humanity. Famed geologist and professor at the University of California, Berkely, Walter Alvarez takes the reader on a stimulating ride through our planet’s history and the incredible occurrences that have led us to where we are today. This inspiring 256-page book includes the following ten chapters: 1. Big History, the Earth, and the Human Situation, 2. From the Big Bang to Planet Earth, 3. Gifts from the Earth, 4. A Planet with Continents and Oceans, 5. A Tale of Two Mountain Ranges, 6. Remembering Ancient Rivers, 7. Your Personal Record of Life History, 8. The Great Journey, 9. Being Human, and 10. What Was the Chance of All This Happening?

Positives:
1. Great science writing. Informative, interesting, accessible and fun to read.
2. A fascinating topic, the panoramic viewpoint of history, “Big History” that combines history and science about our universe.
3. A very good format and overall good flow. Each chapter covers an interesting aspect of Big History. Professor Alvarez has a great command of the topics and the innate ability to convey concepts clearly and with a sense of awe.
4. Good use of photos, maps and illustrations that complement the accessible narrative.
5. Provides a quick account of how cosmic history produced the planet and our solar system. “In an expanding universe, if you were to go backward in time, the galaxies would get closer and closer together, until all the galaxies and all the space between them would be confined to a tiny ball, and this was the Big Bang, almost 14 billion years ago. The Big Bang is usually described as an explosion, although not like ones familiar to us. It was not an explosion within space, like a firecracker or a quarry blast, but an explosion of space and of matter and even of time itself, none of which existed until the explosion took place.”
6. Find out the three wonderful tricks that Nature used to make our world possible.
7. Explains how Earth makes resources useful. “Of those four dominant elements, let’s focus on silicon because it is the basis of most of the minerals and rocks that make up our planet.”
8. Defines key terms and concepts throughout the book. ““Tectonics” is the study of the large-scale geological features of Earth—continents, ocean basins, and mountain ranges—and the word comes from the same root as “architecture”—in this case, the architecture of our planet.”
9. The revolutionary discovery that continents move. “In 1912 the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener presented a detailed theory of continental drift, starting from the coastline fit.”
10. Instead of going into deep depth on each topic and thus dissuading the layperson, Alvarez provides key examples that succeeds in enlightening the reader. “In keeping with the Big History approach, let us look at our two mountain ranges first from the viewpoint of historians, then of travelers and artists and, finally, of geologists.”
11. Mountain history. “The fundamental discovery of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geologists was that Earth history has not been brief—not just a few thousand years, but enormously long, going back to an origin that has now been dated as about 4,500 million years ago.”
12. Describes how external processes like rivers, glaciers and the wind create the geological changes the produce the landscapes that we live in. “Getting the agreement to build the Erie Canal was difficult, and digging the ditch and building the locks in an age of hand labor was herculean, but once the canal was finished in 1825, it changed everything. The agricultural products of the west and the manufactures of the east floated easily along the placid waters of the canal, linking the coastal states and the new interior lands into a dynamic, growing nation.”
13. The keys to life history. “Fossils and DNA give complementary records of life history, each supplying information the other cannot. Fossils tell us what an organism looked like, while DNA tells how two organisms are related.”
14. Interesting tidbits throughout. “Eating with your jaw is a much more ancient activity than using it to tell stories!”
15. Explores how humans tie into the deeper history of our planet. The grand theory of evolution and the human journey. “Finally, about 200,000 years ago, came Homo sapiens, who developed sophisticated culture and a wide range of advanced tools made from stone and other materials.”
16. Describes how human ancestry is revealed. “So we have two tracers of our human ancestry—mitochondrial DNA for the female side and Y-chromosome DNA for the male line.”
17. Describes how the achievements that make us human and how the Earth history has set the stage for these achievements. “The use of fire is not often on the list of critical human attributes, but when we look at what makes us human, controlled fire use might even be the most defining characteristic of our species.”
18. Describes history through the key concepts of continuity and contingency. “On the one hand, I see continuities, made up of trends and cycles, combined in various ways at various time scales. On the other hand, there are contingencies—rare events that make significant changes in history that could not have been predicted very far in advance.”
19. Find out the satisfying conclusion of this book.
20. Notes and further sources provided.

Negatives:
1. It was so much fun to read, I was sad when it was over.
2. Not so much a negative but a disclaimer to readers looking for depth, this book is intended for laypersons.
3. Good use of photos and illustrations but I would have added more timelines.

In summary, this is what good popular science writing is all about a fascinating story grounded in good science and fun to read. Professor Alvarez succeeds in providing the public with an awe-inspiring book on the history of the universe through the four regimes of cosmos, earth, life and humanity. A great gift for the Holidays. A highly recommended read, get this!

Further recommendations: “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll, “Improbable Planet” by Hugh Ross, “Big History” by Cynthia Stokes Brown, “The Serengeti Rules” by Sean B. Carroll, “Welcome to the Universe” by Neil deGrasse Tyson, “How it Began” by Chris Impey, “Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago” by Douglas Erwin, “Wonders of the Universe” and “Wonders of Life” by Brian Cox, “The Great Extinctions” by Norman MacLeod, “Written in Stone” by Brian Switek, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. . more

I was really disappointed in this book. The title alone should have clued me into the way Alvarez views the world. I, like Alvarez, am in love with the rocks and what they tell us. I too am wooed by the story of Earth-- how it came to be, how we came to be, and how everything upon it came to be. It&aposs magical. Alvarez and I can agree on that. However, when it comes to how likely it was that Earth and humans came to exist at all, Alvarez would have a much nicer time talking to Dawkins and the rest I was really disappointed in this book. The title alone should have clued me into the way Alvarez views the world. I, like Alvarez, am in love with the rocks and what they tell us. I too am wooed by the story of Earth-- how it came to be, how we came to be, and how everything upon it came to be. It's magical. Alvarez and I can agree on that. However, when it comes to how likely it was that Earth and humans came to exist at all, Alvarez would have a much nicer time talking to Dawkins and the rest of the "lucky accident crowd" than he would talking to me. This book was written in 2016. It's time to stop the happy accident story telling. It's outdated. Let's instead look for the patterns that resulted in our very likely existence - *even considering differences in initial conditions that make outcomes hard to predict*. Chaos theory doesn't mean we will *never* understand how we came to exist. Every time we thought humans were special or that our planet was special, we turned out to be wrong.

In the end, we are human beings who have spent centuries gathering myriad scientific tools for the sole purpose of gaining a better understanding of how we came to exist. It stands to reason that we will continue to gather more tools and continue to refine our understanding of how the universe, world, and life came to be. There is no need for such a focus on improbable miracles. All things that appear to be miracles are, in the end, scientific phenomena waiting for our human brains to finally understand well enough to explain.

This book might have served well as a very basic intro to geology. However, because of its happy accident focus, that is identical to Dawkins "happy accident" focus in the Selfish Gene, this book cannot even serve as an appropriate intro to geology book. . more

Walter Alvarez – known as the geologist who theorized the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs (the Chicxulub event) – is now a scholar of “big history.” This book is an exercise in big history and was my introduction to the field (or is it? see last paragraph), though I know a historian named David Christian has an $85 college textbook on it. Is big history the same as “global history” of Lynn Hunt and Jo Guldi and David Armitage&aposs History Manifesto? I haven&apost read those (yet), but Alva Walter Alvarez – known as the geologist who theorized the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs (the Chicxulub event) – is now a scholar of “big history.” This book is an exercise in big history and was my introduction to the field (or is it? see last paragraph), though I know a historian named David Christian has an $85 college textbook on it. Is big history the same as “global history” of Lynn Hunt and Jo Guldi and David Armitage's History Manifesto? I haven't read those (yet), but Alvarez does mention Fernand Braudel and the longue durée, so I'll assume they overlap or are similar.

Suffice it to say I was not terrifically impressed by the “big history” approach displayed here, but that is my response to Alvarez’s book, perhaps not the entire field. His approach was simply so broad that it was practically useless to me – in 200 pages of text he glosses over so many things with such a broad brush - from creation of the planet to first life, to geological features (mountains, rivers), to human evolution, to the bronze age and forward, to a brief epilogue on what he calls “contingencies” (coincidences and twists of fate that make up life as we know it). I was already familiar with most of what the book surveyed, and yes, it could be fun to read if one wanted to see short summaries of all the disparate ideas in the same presentation, in the same book. But it’s not as if I hadn’t made some of the connections before or been led there by brilliant writers – I’m not so narrow-minded not to have seen links between the big events and the little details. And for that matter, Alvarez isn’t that skilled at linking tectonic plates and the human microbiome (for example) – he mostly presents everything in separate linear discussions anyway. So I don’t quite understand the novelty.

I do grasp why there might be a scholarly reaction against the “micro-histories” that have become so popular, and I know the academic disciplines are too compartmentalized. But haven’t plenty of historians and scientists and big-picture intellectuals gone this way before, by gathering and synthesizing the discoveries and the research from various fields? What about Eric Kandel – a man who constantly amazes me by the breadth and depth of his knowledge? Or Timothy Ferris who writes on cosmology and history and combines the two? What about playwright-novelist Michael Frayn’s big nonfiction book on humans and the creation of the universe? Daniel Dennett? Steven Pinker? Stephen Jay Gould? Jared Diamond? Anyway, I'll need to read one of those other new books on global/big history at some point. Or I could just keep reading widely, which has worked pretty well so far.
. more

“Big History” is a technique of considering history by going all the way back to the cosmological, geological, and evolutionary forces that have shaped human events. For example, if you want to understand The Battle of Gettysburg you have to go back and look at how the Big Bang formed all the hydrogen in the universe, and then how more elements were created by fusion in the cores of stars, how these elements were then diffused across the galaxy by supernovas, and how this interstellar clouds and “Big History” is a technique of considering history by going all the way back to the cosmological, geological, and evolutionary forces that have shaped human events. For example, if you want to understand The Battle of Gettysburg you have to go back and look at how the Big Bang formed all the hydrogen in the universe, and then how more elements were created by fusion in the cores of stars, how these elements were then diffused across the galaxy by supernovas, and how this interstellar clouds and dust gradually became compressed by gravity. blah, blah, blah, and the Lee ordered Pickett’s charge and lost the Civil War for the South. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Big History is very useful.

Walter Alvarez is an engaging writer, and there were parts of this book that I enjoyed. The story of how bronze age culture was able to arise in the Mediterranean at the time it did because millions of years before undersea vents had spewed out massive amounts of copper before being pushed up above ground by tectonic pressures and forming the island of Cyprus, was interesting and showed the usefulness of Big History, but much of this book seemed superficial. . more

I thoroughly enjoyed his T. Rex and the Crater of Doom and thus was eager to read this as soon as it came out. I think I would have given it 5 stars if I hadn&apost already read as much as I have about the various subjects he covers. I think it&aposs greatest appeal may be to those who haven&apost read a great deal about geology and science and want to know more about the history of Earth and how it relates to the evolution of life from bacteria to homo sapiens.

I thoroughly enjoyed his T. Rex and the Crater of Doom and thus was eager to read this as soon as it came out. I think I would have given it 5 stars if I hadn't already read as much as I have about the various subjects he covers. I think it's greatest appeal may be to those who haven't read a great deal about geology and science and want to know more about the history of Earth and how it relates to the evolution of life from bacteria to homo sapiens.

More like 4.5 stars.
Somehow I became interested in so-called “big” history, which, near as I can figure, combines vast timelines and interdisciplinary science to give a broader view of … something. I chose this book, because the author is the guy who first provided proof of the meteor (or comet) which struck the earth 66 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs. A geologist by trade, he withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous (and outraged) scientists to see his idea accepted as part More like 4.5 stars.
Somehow I became interested in so-called “big” history, which, near as I can figure, combines vast timelines and interdisciplinary science to give a broader view of … something. I chose this book, because the author is the guy who first provided proof of the meteor (or comet) which struck the earth 66 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs. A geologist by trade, he withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous (and outraged) scientists to see his idea accepted as part of the scientific canon. So … props to him, and his book is an entertaining and interesting look at human history from the perspective of several sciences … but mostly geology. He argues that much of human history is an accident of geology – for example, Americans pushed west because the 13 colonies would be trapped by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Appalachian mountains to the west. True enough, but plenty of other countries are locked by the geology and don’t manage to do anything about it. Alvarez also kept reminding us about the glories of big history, which got pretty annoying and even distracted from his story – hey, Walter, in the science of persuasive writing, there is an axiom called “show, don’t tell” – big history is cool enough without needing to constantly remind us how cool it is, especially when it’s not extreme well defined or delineated. But my overwhelming response to this book is that it was a fascinating listen, both well-written and well-read in audiobook form.


Northern Illinois University Department of Biological Sciences College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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Biology is a diverse and rapidly expanding field of study that addresses issues relevant to health, agriculture, industry and the environment. Biologists are responsible for new discoveries in medicine and molecular biology, increasing crop yields and pest resistance, defining the ecological relationships that maintain our planet, and examining the origins and evolution of species, to name just a few.

You will learn and conduct research alongside our faculty, who are highly-regarded and internationally known for their discoveries. Beyond the classroom, we encourage students to seek out faculty mentors and to conduct research very early in their college careers. Not only does this provide you the opportunity to apply knowledge learned in the classroom, but it also establishes you in the field and paves the way for future success.

Our program is highly regarded by both employers and educational institutions, allowing our graduates to pursue careers in government, education, and industry. Many students go onto graduate or professional schools, such as medical, dental, podiatric medicine, optometry, veterinary medicine and pharmacy.

Diversity Statement

The Department of Biological Sciences at NIU stands against oppression in all its forms. We stand for social and racial justice and are working to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in our department. We recognize that biological sciences has a long history of colonialism, racism and white supremacy and has participated in oppressive endeavors, including biological racism, eugenics and inhumane treatment of and experimentation on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). That history and that of our society mean institutionalized, systemic racism is still a part of biology today.

We have recently formed a DEI committee that has helped to remove the GRE from consideration in our graduate application process, instituted DEI discussions as part of regular faculty meetings, and edited our bylaws to ensure search committees have student representation and that tenure/promotion criteria are clear and equitable. We commit to further amending our policies, practices and curricula, to continue to make our department a better, more welcoming place for all faculty, students and staff.


United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

A brief history

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which mobilized the entire world between 2000 and 2015 behind a common program for developing countries.

The 17 SDGs were established in 2015 to build on this momentum to promote prosperity while protecting the environment.

Together, the SDGs create a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. However, six years after this historic agreement was signed by all 193 member states, we are off-track to achieve our global targets. Furthermore, COVID-19 threatens to reverse much of the progress that has been made.

To ensure the world remains focused on the long-term benefits that will be brought about by the SDGs, the United Nations is calling for a Decade of Action — to accelerate sustainable solutions to all the world's biggest challenges by 2030.


What Makes Humans Different? Fiction and Cooperation

Yuval Noah Harari has a few unconventional theories about humankind: religion is our greatest invention, and our species itself will evolve into something new within a couple hundred years. A lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, out in the U.S. in February. We traded emails about human contradiction, techno-religions, and our need to tell stories to each other and ourselves. 

Is there a unique trait linking all human beings?

The truly unique trait of Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities. Of course not all fictions are shared by all humans, but at least one has become universal in our world, and this is money. Dollar bills have absolutely no value except in our collective imagination, but everybody believes in the dollar bill.

What’s the most misunderstood fact about the history of our species?

The crucial importance of cognitive dissonance. Humans have an amazing capacity to believe in contradictory things. For example, to believe in an omnipotent and benevolent God, but somehow excuse Him from all the suffering in the world. Or our ability to believe from the standpoint of law that humans are equal and have free will and from biology that humans are just organic machines. Our medical system and our legal system are built on contradictory assumptions. Yet we somehow live with this contradiction.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution—a #1 international bestseller—that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human.”

We’ve evolved into incredibly social beings. What's the best explanation for that?

The Sapiens secret of success is large-scale flexible cooperation. This has made us masters of the world. But at the same time it has made us dependent for our very survival on vast networks of cooperation. This process has accelerated over the millennia, so that today nearly all of the things we need for survival are provided by complete strangers. I don’t know how to produce the food I eat, how to sew the clothes I wear, or how to build the house in which I live. I write history books, get paid for it, and buy 99 percent of what I need from strangers. It is no wonder that the size of the Sapiens brain has been decreasing over the last 10,000 years.

What has been humanity’s greatest invention?

Humanity's greatest invention is religion, which does not mean necessarily mean belief in gods. Rather, religion is any system of norms and values that is founded on a belief in superhuman laws. Some religions, such as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, believe that these superhuman laws were created by the gods. Other religions, such as Buddhism, Communism and Nazism believed that these superhuman laws are natural laws. Thus Buddhists believe in the natural laws of karma, Nazis argued that their ideology reflected the laws of natural selection, and Communists believe that they follow the natural laws of economics.

No matter whether they believe in divine laws or in natural laws, all religions have exactly the same function: to give stability to human institutions. Without some kind of religion, it is simply impossible to maintain social order. During the modern era religions that believe in divine laws went into eclipse. But religions that believe in natural laws became ever more powerful. In the future, they are likely to become more powerful yet. Silicon Valley, for example, is today a hot-house of new techno-religions, which promise us paradise on earth with the help of new technologies. From a religious perspective, Silicon Valley is the most interesting place in the world.

Is there a role for the individual in the grand history of humankind?

Certainly. History is a very unexpected process. Time and again the most unlikely events take place. For example, in the third and fourth centuries AD an esoteric Jewish sect took over the mighty Roman Empire. In the seventh century a religion born in a remote corner of the Arabian Desert managed to establish the largest empire in the world. In 1917 the Communist Party, boasting a mere 23,000 members, gained control of the mighty Russian Empire, which had 180 million subjects. There were no deterministic reasons mandating the Christian, Muslim or Communist victories. There was nothing about the climate or geography of the fourth-century Mediterranean basin that made it inevitable that Christianity rather than Manicheanism, Mithraism or Zoroastrianism would come out on top. It had a lot to do with quirky coincidences and quirky individuals.

An even more important role for the individual is to serve as the bottom line of history. In the end, history is about happiness and suffering, which exist only at the level of the individual. A nation never suffers. A corporation never suffers. Only individuals suffer.

What's next for humankind?

Given current technological advances, it seems unavoidable that humans will disappear within a century or two. I don’t think we will be destroyed in some nuclear or ecological catastrophe. Rather, I think that we will upgrade ourselves into something completely different. Humans are going to acquire abilities that were traditionally thought to be divine abilities.

Humans may soon be able to live indefinitely, to design and create living beings at will, to surf artificial realities directly with their minds, and to change their own bodies and minds according to their wishes. The most amazing thing about the future won't be the spaceships but the beings flying them. This will result in enormous new opportunities as well as frightful new dangers. There is no point being optimistic or pessimistic about it. We need to understand that this is really happening—it is science rather than science fiction—and it is high time we start thinking about this very seriously. 


Admission Requirements

Applicants ordinarily will have completed an undergraduate major in biology or a related field. A basic array of courses including general biology, development, ecology, genetics, morphology, and physiology is recommended; applicants should have completed organic chemistry and a semester each of calculus and physics. Applicants whose preparation does not meet these criteria can be admitted to the program, but may need to remedy any deficiencies via courses that do not give graduate credit.

All applicants are strongly encouraged to communicate with potential advisors as part of the application process. Identifying an advisor is normally a prerequisite for admission. To contact a potential advisor in the Marine Biology or Integrative Organismal Biology option, please see the lists of faculty.


Climate Science - A Brief History of our Climate

In this blog, Part 4 of our Climate Science series, we will walk you through the history of our climate and show the key changes in temperature and concentration of CO2, what caused them and how fast the changes were. This context will help show just how dramatic the climate change we see today really is, and just how urgently action is required.

What was our atmosphere like in the past?

4.5 billion years ago (bya) – 500 million years ago (mya)

Since forming 4.5 billion years ago the Earth’s atmosphere has gone through huge transformations, and three distinct types of atmospheres. The early atmosphere was a toxic mixture of Ammonia, Methane & Hydrogen, eventually tectonic activity and asteroid impacts led to Nitrogen becoming the dominant gas in a second atmosphere. It wasn’t until 2.4 billion years ago that Oxygen began to take up a larger share, forming the third atmosphere.

As the atmosphere changed so did the planet itself. The first two periods of widespread glaciation, known as Ice Ages, were caused by a combination of plate tectonic activity and Earth’s orbit shifting, the first roughly over 2 bya and another just over 600 mya.

The early changes to our planet were certainly dramatic, but its worth remembering that they took place over very long timescales, and so actually happened incredibly slowly.

500 mya- 1 mya

Up until about 50 million years ago there were huge shifts in CO2 levels, peaking at 6,000ppm (parts per million) and dropping to around 400ppm. From 50 mya onwards CO2 declined steadily from 1000 ppm all the way to 200 ppm.

It is worth noting that the last time CO2 concentrations were 412ppm (todays value) was roughly 3 million years ago