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A Short History of Nearly Everything (Mad Book Love!)

February 7, 2012

I’m currently doing a term abroad, and as such have much more unscheduled time than I am accustomed to. Usually there is both paid and unpaid work to keep me occupied, in addition to University. One thing I always notice when I have an abundance of time to myself (and a ready laptop) is that I tend to spend hours on ‘fluffy’ pursuits: (re)watching television shows and movies, or reading mindless fiction… And a marked pattern that emerges is that fluff tows with it laziness, apathy, and eventual (though subtle) depression. While this might not apply to everyone, I find that if I can pull myself into the habit of reading better literature, watching better films/documentaries, and doing more creative things withmy time I feel like I have more self-efficacy and, consequently, more happiness. That may be a bit of an obvious point, but I forget it remarkably often.

Anyhow, this month’s ‘improving book’ was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. In this post I’m cheating a bit by letting Bryson do most of the talking (justifiably so, I think) as he is undoubtedly a better writer than myself.

The passage below is at the very end of the book; it closes a disturbing chapter on extinctions that humans were responsible for. While it’s an excellent stand-alone piece, I hope it will also encourage a few readers to pick up the book itself. I would give a synopsis, but its title rather takes care of that.

… if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job.

But here’s an extremely salient point: we haven been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It’s an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe’s supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.

Because we are so remarkably careless about looking after things, both when alive and when not, we have no idea – really none at all – about how many things have died off permanently, or may soon, or may never, and what role we have played in any part of the process. In 1979, in the book The Sinking Ark, the author Norman Myers suggested that human activities were causing about two extinctions a week on the planet. By the early 1990s he had raised the figure to some six hundred per week. (That’s extinctions of all types – plants, insects, and so on as well as animals.) Others have put the figure even higher – to well over a thousand a week. A United Nations report of 1995, on the other hand, put the total number of known extinctions in the last four hundred years at slightly under 500 for animals and slightly over 650 for plants – while allowing that this was “almost certainly an underestimate,” particularly with regard to tropical species. A few interpreters think most extinction figures are grossly inflated.

The fact is, we don’t know. Don’t have any idea. We don’t know when we started doing many of the things we’ve done. We don’t know what we are doing right now or how our present actions will affect the future. What we do know is that there is only one planet to do it on, and only one species of being capable of making a considered difference. Edward O. Wilson expressed it with unimprovable brevity in The Diversity of Life: “One planet, one experiment.”

If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by “we” I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.

We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviourally modern human beings – that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities – have existed for only about 0.0001 percent of Earth’s history. But surviving for even that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune.

We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks.

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