The Case for Shared Ancestry

When Henry Beston, an American writer and naturalist, wrote in 1928 about his long stay in an isolated wood cabin (which he had designed) on the shores of the ocean,  he didn’t expect that his book ‘The Outermost House’ would become universally recognised as a classic of American nature writing. He called himself a poet of the landscape, and his exquisite word mastery was unsurpassed. It was known for him to work all day on one sentence, and by the evening the floor of his study would be covered with discarded pages with only a few words on each. But the final result was indisputedly the perfection he was so obsessively seeking.

Quotations from his book were printed on postcards, and one framed is on the wall of my study, above my writing desk. This is it:

‘For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of splendour and travail of the Earth.’

His words are my inspiration, but although I will never  be able to write in such an exquisite way, I wholly share his understanding of the importance of the natural world. The progressive development of the physical sciences unearths more and more of the atomic facts. The discovery of the spiral structure of nucleic acids by Crick and Watson in 1953 allowed attempts to recreate the beginning of life. In a series of experiments, an electrical discharge, similar to lightning, was passed through a specifically created atmosphere and although this didn’t create living organisms, it did significantly accumulate organic chemicals. We know now the complex earthly synthesis of gases and minerals formed life and grew over millions of years. The creatures that first appeared in the ocean, and those that later crawled out onto the land, were certainly not humans.

Above is an artist impression of the primordial soup, in which the first life on Earth may have originated, and below are biomolecules which may have been precursors to life.

Insects beat us to evolution, and it is easy to think how they were inspired and encouraged by seeing a shimmering speck of dust twirling higher and higher in the wind that was propelling it away into an unknown distance. The insects had a good chance of ‘flying’ with the winds as they were so light, and all they needed was a small ‘adjustment’ of growing relatively simple wings, to be then able to move on across the globe and prosper. We, or rather humanoids, needed a few million years more to emerge from caves or even trees and learn how to walk, or shuffle more like, and due to their weight the prospect of flying would not have even crossed their undeveloped brains. Still, a few millions years on, and we have done very well, considering. What is

well documented is that we all share the same ‘parents’, the first clutch of bacteria that was able to divide and reproduce, and was crucial to cell formation and life. And that is Henry Beston’s profound message: we have to respect and protect ALL life on Earth, not only because we are related but because the life on our planet can only be sustained by cooperation, and by not destroying the all-important but now fragile ecosystem.

The United Nations summit on climate change, held in Poland and attended by 200 nations including the UK,  had its first ever ‘People’s Seat’ speech delivered by the broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. His message is stark: ‘Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years –  climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.’ The conference is taking place in Katowice for the next two weeks.

While world leaders are deliberating the urgent need to limit global warming, scientists are coming up with a novel solution – to copy the effect of a volcano blast to cool the Earth. A team from Harvard University is planning next July to release jets of calcium carbonate, chalk dust, into the atmosphere 12 miles above the Earth to reflect some of the Sun’ rays back into space. They hope this would have the effect of cooling the planet by 0.5 C for several months. But other experts warn that the released particles could damage the ozone layer and disrupt rainfall patterns, which could results in drought in some areas. What would have the most important impact on global warming is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If we ignore this, eventually it will be – goodbye to me, goodbye to him and goodbye to all of us.



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