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This is an extraordinary time to be alive. Look around you, take in the intricate complexities of life on Earth, and then consider this: complex life is a very recent invention. Our home planet spent most of its long history coated in nothing but simple, primordial slime. For billions of years, the only earthlings were made of goo.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. At one abrupt moment roughly 600 million years ago, something shook the Earth out of its complacency. From this came the beginnings of eyes, teeth, legs, wings, feathers, hair and brains. Every insect, every ape and antelope, every fish, bird and worm. Whatever triggered this new beginning was ultimately responsible for the existence of you and everyone you've ever known.
So what was it?
Paul Hoffman, part-time marathon runner, full-time geologist, and obsessive, intense seeker of glory, thinks he knows. He believes he has finally struck science gold. Now a full professor at Harvard University and a world-renowned scientist, he has uncovered evidence for the biggest climate catastrophe the Earth has ever endured. And from that disaster, according to Paul, came a remarkable new redemption.
Shark Bay shows up from the air as a snag in the smooth coastline of Western Australia. Five hundred miles north of Perth, it lies just at the place where tropical and temperate zones rub shoulders. The area around the bay is a powerful reminder of how far we have come since primordial slime ruled the world. It is full of varied, vivid life.
This is one of the few places in the world where wild dolphins commune with humans, every day, regular as clockwork. At 7:00 a.m. each day a park ranger dressed in khaki uniform emerges from a wooden hut to focus a pair of binoculars on the horizon. Perhaps half an hour later, he'll spot the first dolphin fin. Somehow the word immediately spreads. Where there were only four or five people on the sandy beach, suddenly fifty or sixty appear.
Three harassed rangers do their best to marshal them into an orderly line. Everyone will get a chance to see the dolphins. No one will be permitted to touch them. No one must go more than knee-deep in the water. Another ranger deftly diverts the enormous wild white pelicans away from the beach by flicking on a water sprinkler. The birds flock around with gaping jaws--in this desert landscape, fresh water is irresistible.
The dolphins and their calves arrive. One of the rangers, a wireless headset amplifying her voice, wades up and down in front of the spectators, introducing the dolphins ("This is Nicky and Nomad, Surprise and her calf Sparky") and reciting useful dolphin facts. The crowd surges into the water, like acolytes seeking a Jordanian baptism, their expressions beatific.
The dolphins are the crowd pullers--more than six hundred of them live here. But Shark Bay is also famous for the rest of its wildlife. The bay contains more than 2,600 tiger sharks, not to mention hammerheads and the occasional great white. The tigers show up in the water as streamlined shadows up to twelve feet long; often they are skulking beside patches of sea grass in the hope that dinner will emerge in the form of a blunt-nosed, lumbering gray dugong. Dugongs, or sea cows, are supposedly the creatures behind the mermaid myths, though I can't see it myself. They are too prosaic, placidly chewing away at the end of a "food trail," a line of clear water that they have cut, caterpillar-like, through the fuzzy green sea grass. They're exceptionally shy and rare, but here, among the largest and richest sea-grass meadows in the world, are a staggering ten thousand of them--tiger sharks notwithstanding.
Then there are sea snakes, green turtles, and migrating humpback whales. And just a little to the north, where the tropics begin in earnest, lies Coral Bay--one of the world's top ten dive sites. Come and dive the Navy pier! See more than 150 species of fish! Also sea sponges and corals, brilliant purple Xatworms, snails and lobsters and shrimp. And the vast, harmless whale sharks, the world's biggest Fish. And on land there are wallabies and bettongs and bandicoots, emus and kangaroos and tiny, timid native mice.
There's everything in this region, from the wonderful to the plain weird. Evolution has been tweaking, adapting and inventing new forms of complex life for hundreds of millions of years, and here in Western Australia it surely shows.
But this is also a place where you can travel back in time, to see the other side of the evolutionary equation--the simplest, most primitive creatures of all. They come from the very First moments in the history of life, just after the dust from the Earth's creation had settled. And when these First fumblings of life appeared on Earth's surface, their form was exceedingly unprepossessing. Throughout oceans, ponds and pools, countless microscopic creatures huddled together in a primordial sludge. They coated the seaXoor, and inched their way up shore with the tide; they clustered around steaming hot springs, and soaked up rays from the faint young sun. Dull green or brown, excreting a gloopy glue that bonded them together into mats, these creatures were little more than bags of soup. Each occupied a single cell. Each had barely mastered the rubrics of how to eat, grow and reproduce. They were like individual cottage industries in a world that had no interest in collaboration or specialization. They were as simple as life gets.
Although these primitive slime creatures have now been outcompeted in all but the most hostile environments, a few odd places still exist where you can experience the primeval Earth firistband. The acidic hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, for instance, or Antarctica's frigid valleys. And here, in Western Australia, where countless microscopic, single-celled, supremely ancient creatures are making their meager living in one small corner of Shark Bay: a shallow lagoon called Hamelin Pool. The pool's water doesn't mix much with the rest of the bay, and it's twice as salty as normal. Since few modern marine animals will tolerate so much salt, this is one of the last refuges of ancient slime.
The sign pointing to Hamelin Pool is easy to miss, even on the desolate road running south from Monkey Mia. On the second pass I Finally spot it, turn left, and bump along a sand track with scrubby bush to either side. For this first visit I avoid the restored telegraph station with its tiny museum and tea shop, and head straight for the beach. I want to experience primordial Earth without a guide.
There's an empty parking lot of white sand, with wattles and low-slung saltbushes clinging to the surrounding dunes, and a path threading through the bushes toward the sea. Though I've come to find the world's simplest creatures, the complexities of life are everywhere. From one of the bushes a chiming wedgebill incessantly reiterates its five-note melody. From another, a gray-crested pigeon regards me unblinkingly. The shells of the beach crunch underfoot; they are tiny, bone-white, and perfectly formed, and the bivalves that grew them are eons of evolution ahead of the simple creatures that I'm seeking. I step onto the boardwalk, which stretches like a pier out into the water. Each weathered plank of wood contains row upon row of cells that once collaborated in a large, complex organism. Signs on all sides show pictures of the slime creatures with smily faces and cheery explanations of their origin. Flies buzz infuriatingly around my head, landing on my face to drink from the corners of my eyes. Black swifts swoop between the handrails, and butterXies the color of honey, with white and black tips to their wings. Time travel is harder than it looks. The modern world is right here even in Hamelin Pool, and it's stubbornly refusing to leave.
I retreat to the telegraph station to plead with the ranger for permission to leave the boardwalk and wade out into the pool. He hesitates and then relents. "Go along the beach to the left," he says. "Don't step on the mats. Be careful." The mats he's talking about are one of the signs of primeval Earth. They are slimy conglomerates of ancient cyanobacteria, and they grow painfully slowly. At the beginning of the last century, horse-drawn wagons were backed into the sea over the mats, to unload boat cargo. A hundred years later the tracks they left are still visible as bare patches in the thin black sludge. An injudicious footprint here will last a long time. I promise to watch my step.
I return to the beach and this time walk carefully toward the water's edge. More striking than the ubiquitous patches of sludgy, foul-smelling bacterial mats are the "living rocks" in between. These strange denizens of Slimeworld are everywhere, an army of misshapen black cabbage heads marching into the sea.
The ones highest up the shore are now nothing more than dead gray domes of rock, shaped like clubs, perhaps a foot tall. They once bore microbial mats on their surfaces, but these have long since shriveled, abandoned by the receding water. Closer to the Pool's edge the domes are coated with black stippling that will turn to dull olive green when the tide washes over them. Most of the stromatolites, though, lie in the water, stretching out as far as I can see. Between them the sand is draped with black-green mats of slime, and checkered with irregular patterns of sunlight as the waves ripple overhead. I wade up to my knees among these strange formations, basking in the sunshine. There is nobody else in sight.
The living rocks of Slimeworld are called "stromatolites," a word that comes from the Greek meaning "bed of rock." Though the interior of the stromatolites is plain, hard rock, their outer layers are spongy to the touch. Here on the surface is where the ancient microbes live. They're sun-worshipers: by day they draw themselves up to their full Wlamentous height--perhaps a thousandth of an inch--soak up the sun, and make their food; by night they lie back down again. The water that surrounds them is Wlled with Wne sand and sediment stirred up by the waves. Gradually this sand rains down on the organisms, and each night's bed is a fresh layer of incipient rock. The stromatolites are inadvertent building sites; the sticky ooze that the organisms extrude acts as mortar and the sand acts as bricks. Every day, as the microbes worm their way outward, another thin layer of rock is laid down beneath them.
It's a slow process. Stromatolites grow just a fraction of an inch each year. The ones in Hamelin Pool are hundreds of years old and would be astonishing feats of engineering, had they been created by design. For these microorganisms to erect a stromatolite three feet high is like humans building something that reaches hundreds of miles into the sky, and scrapes the edges of space. I wade a hundred yards, two hundred yards oVshore, and the slope is still so gentle that the deepening is barely perceptible. Mercifully, the Xies and butterXies have dropped back, and the birdsong is out of earshot. At last I begin to feel that I've traveled back to life's earliest days.
Hamelin Pool's mats and stromatolites look utterly alien, but they were once ubiquitous. Time was, this scene of stromatolites and stippled microbial mats would have greeted you everywhere you went. Forget dolphins and wallabies. This is how the Earth looked for nearly three and a half billion years. The imprints of the stromatolites and their mats show up still wherever suYciently ancient rocks poke through to the Earth's surface. I've seen them in Namibia, in South Africa, in Australia and California. They are sometimes dome-shaped like these in Shark Bay, sometimes cones, sometimes branching like corals. There are places where you can walk among ancient petrified stromatolite reefs, rest your feet on their stone cabbage heads, and see where they have been sliced through to reveal rings of petrified growth. And you can run your Wingers over fossilized mats, which give rock surfaces the unexpected texture of elephant skin. This slime used to be everywhere, and now it's almost nowhere.
How did we get from there to here? This is at once a simpler and more powerful question than it seems. Of course, life took many separate evolutionary steps on its way from stromatolites to wallabies. It had to invent eyes and legs and fur and feet, and everything else that distinguishes marsupials from slime. But there was one particular step that was more important than all the others, one that made all the divergence.
The step was this: learning to make an organism not from just one cell, but from many. Though the first microbes on Earth were woefully unsophisticated, they did gradually learn new tricks to exploit the planet's many niches. But they all still had one thing in common. Each individual creature was packaged in its own tiny sac, a single microscopic cell. Then at some particular point in Earth's history, everything changed. One cell split into two, then four. From that time onward, organisms could be cooperative, and above all their cells could specialize. There could be eye cells and skin cells, cells to make up organs and tissues and limbs.
For life, this was the industrial revolution. Forget the old cottage industries. Now you could have factories with production lines. Parceling out tasks and specializing is always more efficient than trying to do everything yourself. And there are some things, wallabies for instance, that can only be made with a massive collaborative effortt.
In just the same way, when organisms developed the ability to become multicellular, they gained a world of possibilities. Your body is made up of trillions of cells. Every hair is packed with them. You shed skin cells whenever you move. Your blood cells carry energy around your body, to feed the organs made up of still more cells. This multiple identity is the one criterion that's vital for any complex creation. Every dolphin and dugong, every shark, pelican and wombat depends for its existence on that crucial leap from one cell to many. This was the point when simple slime yielded its preeminence to the complex creations that heaved their way out of the sludge and started their march toward modernity.
But why did it take so long? The Slimeworld lasted for almost the whole of Earth history. Let's put in some numbers. Our planet had been around for 4 billion years before the First complex earthlings emerged from the ooze. That's nearly 90 percent of Earth's lifetime.
Four billion years is an insane amount of time, almost impossible to contemplate. There have been many attempts to capture this spread of time in ways that we can comprehend. If the history of life on Earth were crammed into a year, slime would have ruled through spring, summer and fall, continuing well past Halloween into the beginnings of winter. If it were squeezed into the six days of creation, slime ruled until six o'clock on Saturday morning. If it stretched over a marathon course, slime would have led the Weld past the twenty-three-mile mark.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted October 27, 2011
Snowball Earth is a chronicle of an epic quest in field geology, namely, the struggles of Harvard geologist Paul Hoffman to establish that the Earth during late Precambrian times had been completely covered by ice from pole to equator for a considerable period and perhaps more than once. Gabrielle Walker's book is written in classic New Yorker style with a mixture of reportage, biography and a touch of science. The sometimes very personal nature of scientific discourse is brought vividly to light with tales of what were close to, if not literally physical brawls over the interpretation of field and laboratory evidence.
As the subtitle implies, the spinoff from the snowball theory is its purported relationship to the evolution of complex, multi-cellular life and the Cambrian explosion. However, Walker does not delve that deeply into snowball theory. Hence, the link between the snowball and evolution appears weak. There is no quantitative analysis, maps (especially paleo-geographic maps) or figures to aid the reader in evaluating the significance of the arguments. And with all the modern concern for climate change and Earth systems, there is very little discussion of the implications of the theory on our understanding of fundamental Earth climate behavior. Therefore, the reader is left to explore the technical literature on their own. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw for the book only because the writing is so polished and engaging. Snowball Earth is a real scientific page turner.
The book briefly explores the thesis that this type of "clash of the Titans" is, in the final analysis, good, if not essential, for the advancement science. However, it strikes this reader that the final outcome (the general acceptance of the reality of major Precambrian glaciations that differed in kind from Pleistocene glaciations) might not have been substantially different if the main characters had been a little less driven in defense of "purity", and a bit more conciliatory toward some modification of the theory. On the one hand, the quality of the storytelling may inspire some to admiration or to pursue a geoscience career, but, on the other hand, the tales of scientific brawls and pettiness might just scare aspiring students (and the general public at whom this book is presumably aimed) off.
Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University
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Posted August 1, 2010
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