It’s easy to take modern Earth for granted — our breathable atmosphere, the delicately balanced ecosystems we depend on — but this world is nothing like the planet on which life first found its foothold. In fact it may be more appropriate to think of life in terms of verbs than nouns, of processes instead of finished products. This is the evolutionary turn that science started taking in the 19th Century…but only in the last few decades has biology begun to see this planet’s soil, air, and oceans as the work-in-progress of our biosphere. The story of our planet can’t be adequately told without some understanding of how life itself depends on opportunities that life creates, based on the energy and mineral resources made as byproducts of our metabolisms. A new, revelatory narrative of the last 3.8 billion years refigures living systems in terms of thermodynamic flows and the ever-growing range of possibilities created by our ever-more-complex ecologies. And in the telling, this new history sheds light on some of the biggest puzzles of the fossil record: why complex animals took so long to appear, why humans are the way we are, and maybe even why the sky is blue.
This week’s guest is evolutionary biologist and science journalist Olivia Judson, an honorary research fellow at The Imperial College of London who received her PhD from the University of Oxford and whose writing has appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Guardian, and National Geographic. She is also the author of the internationally best-selling popular science book, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. In this episode, we discuss her work on major energy transitions in evolution (the subject of her next book), and what we can learn by studying the intimate dance of biology and geology over the last 4 billion years.
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“The energy expansions of evolution” in Nature.
The Atlantic on Olivia’s essay.
Music by Mitch Mignano.
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