A Q&A with Henry Gee

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced when cramming 4.6 billion years in one book? 

A: It’s not as hard as it sounds, given that we know almost nothing about the first nine-tenths of it, and most of the rest is full of gaps. The problem is giving the reader any sense of the scale of time involved. This is mind-bendingly huge. So, although it seems like I’ve cantered through most of it by the end of the first chapter, you need to take a look at the time charts that go with the book. There are six, with each one a blow-up of the one before. The final one shows the history of our species since it developed the bow-and-arrow some 120,000 years ago. Even at that scale, the entire compass of recorded history is hardly more than a sliver at the top. Yet the whole of this chart would be unprintably microscopic if it had to fit into the first chart, which shows the whole of time since the birth of the Universe around 13,000,000,000 years ago until the Sun becomes a Red Giant and engulfs the inner planets some 5,000,000,000 years in the future. 

 So, if I did the whole book to scale, and wrote it as, say, a week-per-page diary, that would mean a book more than 200,000,000,000 pages long. I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and that would need a book around 9,000 miles thick. That’s about the distance between New York, NY, and Sydney, Australia. Most of those pages would be really, really boring, so one has to go for the general trends and edited highlights. 

Q: You've managed to provide such compelling pictures of successive epochs without losing sight of broader patterns. What gave you the impetus to write this book and what do you think are its most distinctive features? 

A: What I wanted to do with this book was tell the story of the entire history of life as just that – a story. It even starts ‘Once upon a time’. I wanted to keep as far away as I could from the usual didactic style of popular science books. Those who want to know more, of course, can dig into the notes. It started a bit differently, though. I was chatting about books with my colleague David Adam, who was (then) a news writer at Nature, and who had written two very fine books (The Man Who Couldn’t Stop and The Genius Within). He suggested I write a book about the amazing fossil discoveries that have made their way into Nature on my watch. This suggested lots of anecdotes about the people and circumstances surrounding great discoveries. 

From this germ I wrote a book called Let’s Talk About Rex: A Personal History of Life on Earth, which was less a science book than a tell-all exposé about science as it’s done. My agent, Jill Grinberg, was keen on the idea, but as I talked about living people, I felt I had to clear it with them first, which I did. The first sign of disquiet came from my parents – ever my harshest critics – who said that this was all very nice, dear, but who, apart from the people involved, would be interested? Jill steered me round to writing a proposal for the book you see, and the rest is prehistory. 

Q: You integrate human life into its broader context of the evolution of the planet and its life forms. To what extent did you come to the project with definite ideas about this and how much did these change as you were writing the book? 

A: To be honest I didn’t give that a lot of thought. ‘History’ starts with the invention of writing, and one might imagine that the earliest stirrings of this happened when people started to make stencils of their own hands on cave walls. So that’s where I ended the main narrative, leaping over the entirety of recorded history and vaulting into the future. But I have never been much of a fan of the idea of humans as something qualitatively different from any other animal or plant. Indeed, the idea of human exceptionalism is a view I addressed head-on in my book The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution (University of Chicago Press, 2013). 

The only things humans seem to do that other animals don’t (as far as anyone knows) is tell stories, initially to explain their own existence in a mysterious and mystifying Universe. So that’s what I have tried to do in A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth. I suppose you could say it’s a secular creation myth, based on the science we know, and which is likely to keep on changing as people discover more. 

Q: How have your thirty-odd years working at Nature influenced this book? What do you think your initial boss, John Maddox, would have made of it? 

A: In April 2021 I celebrated, if that’s the word, thirty-three and a third revolutions as an editor at Nature. I suppose that must be some kind of long-playing record. For all that time I’ve had a front-row seat watching science during what I suspect has been one of the most exciting periods in its history. That’s certainly been true for my own field, palaeontology. I’ve seen dinosaurs sprout feathers, fish grow legs and hobbits emerge from the jungle of Indonesia. It’s no coincidence therefore that the bulk of the events recorded in my book first appeared in Nature’s pages, many of them on my watch as an editor. 

None of that would have been possible hadn’t John Maddox took an inexplicable shine to me back in 1987, when I was an utterly inexperienced graduate student, and he hired me to write for a Nature-branded column in the London Times. I’d hardly written anything at all, so being picked by Maddox to write for the Times op-ed page was like being picked for a Premier-league soccer team after being watched having a kick-about in the street. To call this a lucky break is an understatement. 

Maddox had the knack of picking people he liked and letting them get on with it. I think we both understood that science was all about confronting the unknown. And, like him, I fancy myself as a contrarian. He had quite a mischievous twinkle in his eye and was not above causing a certain amount of devilment just to stir things up. As those who remember Maddox will know, he was insightful, wise, canny and kind, as well as sometimes arbitrary, mercurial and exasperating, but he really did know everything

Q: What are the most important lessons you'd like readers to take from the book? 

A: That one needs to adopt a certain amount of perspective when thinking about humanity’s current problems. Climate change is a good example. There is now no doubt at all that the climate is changing rapidly and that the activities of human beings are in large part to blame. Addressing climate change is indeed a priority, but we should be clear about why we are doing it. Human-induced climate change should be mitigated in order to keep the planet habitable for humans and the animals and plants on which we depend for what people nowadays call ecosystem services -- such as clean water, breathable air, pollination of our crop plants, healthy soil in which to grow the plants, and so on. The notorious paper by Robert Costanza and colleagues that valued terrestrial ecosystem services at 33 trillion US dollars was a paper I am proud to have nursed to publication. 

So much is clear. However, exhortations to ‘Save The Planet’ are, to me, expressions of a kind of colossal narcissistic hubris. The planet will go on very well, thank you very much, whether or not we are on it. Addressing climate change is all about saving ourselves, not the planet, and there are aspects of climate change which, in the long term, we can do nothing about. The Earth has, at various times, been a ball of molten lava; entirely covered with water; a jungle from pole to pole; or burdened with ice miles thick. We can do nothing about (say) asteroid impacts (though people would like to) or other extra-terrestrial phenomena such as bursts of solar activity or showers of cosmic rays from space that could sterilize the planet. In the great scheme of things, a few degrees up or down mean very little, so exhortations to save the planet are rather like those of King Canute’s courtiers who suggested that he could turn the tide on command. The same goes for extinctions. Sure, we must take care to preserve as much of the Earth’s ecosystems as we can, as we depend on them to keep us alive. But we are not living through the much touted ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’. At least, not yet. We’d have to keep going the way we are going for another 500 years for human-induced extinction to even register with the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions of the past. 

Much of the damage done by humans is of very recent date indeed – just a couple of hundred years or so. The internal combustion engine that has done so much to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere was invented an eye-blink ago (in 1876) and in another few years it’ll be as outmoded as the manual typewriter. Even now, cars are much more fuel-efficient than they were a generation ago – I mean, no-one drives those enormous gas-guzzlers any more outside stage productions of Grease. It’s worth remembering that the interval between the first transatlantic plane flight (1919) and the first human landing on the Moon (1969) was only fifty years. 

What people seem to forget (or perhaps, it doesn’t suit them to remember) is the recency of this damage, and that people and governments are already doing a great deal both to mitigate our impact on the environment and improve the human condition. Per-capita energy use in the UK and the US peaked in the 1970s, plateaued, and has started to fall. In the UK it has declined by a fifth in just twenty years. There is more woodland in the UK now than at any time since the 14th century. In the third quarter in 2019, the UK was powered more by renewables than by fossil fuels, and this trend is likely to continue. 

Q: Okay, so much for the facts and figures -- what’s the single most important thing that people can do to improve the human condition and keep the planet habitable? 

A: Over the medium term – on the scale of human lifetimes - the single most important change is the social, political and reproductive empowerment of women. Just look at the evidence. Considering that women started to become politically active only around a century ago, the changes have been salutary and dramatic. The workforce has potentially doubled, energy efficiency has increased, and the quality of life improved for people worldwide. More people are completing primary and secondary education. 

Because women have more governance over their own bodies than they once did, the rate of population growth is falling. In most countries, even so-called developing ones, population growth is less than that required to maintain it at current levels. Although the population overall will increase for several more decades, especially in countries where most people are young, the rate at which the population is growing overall peaked in 1968 and has halved since. The world population will max out mid-century and, in another century, might be less than it is now. And the population hasn’t been very large for very long. When I was a child (I’m 59) it was less than half the current figure. When my grandparents were children, it was a quarter. The rise in human population is a recent phenomenon. To be sure, the record is patchy, and there remain places where women are treated as second-class citizens, but I’m talking broad-brush here. 

Q: Would you say you’re an optimist, then? 

A: Cautiously, yes. The impact of human activity on the Earth, though seemingly intense, is far less than it could be, and, in any case, will not last very long. In the great scheme of things, and I tend to take a long view – a very long view -- the tenure of humans on Earth amounts to no more than the proverbial hill of beans. I tend to view the current modish hysteria, with words such as ‘emergency’, ‘catastrophe’ and ‘crisis’ thrown around like so much lexical confetti, as symptoms of a news cycle that has to refresh itself on an hourly basis. Such hysteria – just my opinion – is likely to turn people off rather than engage them to do more. Perhaps that’s just me being very British, asking people to Keep Calm and Carry On and take a more sober view of the bigger picture. 

Q: What is your favorite ancient creature and why? 

A: I shouldn’t really play favorites, but I am rather fond of sponges, which by patiently sieving dirt and waste from seawater for tens of millions of years, made the world habitable for other animals. 

Q: If you could go back to any point in time, where would you go and why? 

A: The middle of the Triassic, 230 million years ago, or so. These days the Triassic is usually remembered as the period when the dinosaurs evolved, and because everyone loves dinosaurs, the rest of the Triassic cavalcade gets forgotten. Yet the Triassic was stuffed full of the most amazing carnival of creatures that people are hardly aware of, some of them much weirder than dinosaurs. 

Q: In your book In Search of Deep Time (Free Press, 1999/ Fourth Estate, 2000) you said that the scale of geological time is so vast that the one thing we cannot do is tell it as a story. Yet that seems to be exactly what you’ve done in A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth. Care to explain? 

A: I was wondering when someone would ask me that. In In Search of Deep Time I was arguing against the use by scientists of narrative to explain evolutionary change. Such a mechanism relies on so many assumptions that are impossible to falsify. For example, how can anyone know (say) that humans became bipeds in order to free their hands to use tools? It could be that humans became bipeds to scratch one anothers' backs (all the better to reinforce social cohesion, you see), or to look over the long grass, or anything you please, and to claim that one scenario is better than another relies not on the scientific business of testing hypotheses but on assertion and appeals to authority. Such thinking is thankfully much less common in scientific circles than it once was, although it’s still deeply ingrained in popular culture – something I sought to address in The Accidental Species. However, there is nothing wrong with stories per se. Indeed, they are vital. The culmination of A (Very) Short History has humans evolving grandmothers, part of whose function was to tell stories to children to educate them and inculcate in them the sense of wonder and awe and terror about the world, and their place in it. 

As far as we know, humans are the only creatures that tell stories. One of my favourite pastimes as a parent was to read bedtime stories to my children. A (Very) Short History is in the nature of a bedtime story for people in general, grown-ups, to – well, why not? -- inculcate in them the sense of wonder and awe and terror about the world, and their place in it. But as I am a scientist, there are scads of notes at the back to tell you how much or how little of the story at any point is based on evidence. Indeed, science moves on, and there have already been key developments that have emerged since I wrote the book. That’s science! 

Q: When and where do you do your best thinking? 

 A: When I am already into a project, the best ideas come when I am out walking with my dogs. My friend Brian Clegg, who is an amazingly productive science writer, told me that the single best piece of equipment a writer can have is a dog. Writing is a sedentary occupation and you need to step away from your desk and get some exercise every now and then. You can always put off going to the gym, but dogs like their routine, and those big doggy eyes and waggy tails and general barking and jumping up and down at the same time each day will force you outdoors to get some healthful exercise. And while you’re doing that, you’ll find your brain churning over problems about plot and structure and organisation so that when you get home all the problems will have been solved and the knots magically unravelled. 

All my best books, however, come from brainstorming ideas with my agent, Jill Grinberg. She has represented me for more than twenty years, ever since she was a junior at a larger agency and before she set up on her own. We’ve kind of grown up together. I’d get some half-baked synopsis and Jill would chip in various ideas and together we’d wrangle it into shape. That’s how In Search of Deep Time – my first book for a general audience – came into being. The same went for The Accidental Species – my most successful book thusfar. And the general shaping of A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth owes a great deal to Jill. 

Q: Do you have a single piece of advice for people who want to write? 

A: Write every day. If you already think of yourself as a writer, you’ll be doing that anyway. You have to have some degree of natural talent to be a writer, but any talent – whether it’s playing sports, or a musical instrument, or any skill -- can be honed by practice. Write something. Anything. It doesn’t have to be a chapter of the Great American Novel. It can be a tweet, a letter, even a shopping list. That old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall is entirely true.

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