Over half a billion years ago in the cloudy depths of the Panthalassic Ocean, lay a lost world of breathtaking wonder. Forests of delicate, jelly-like fractals swayed dreamily in the shallow calcium rich seas, while ribbed domes of gelatinous fauna morphed slowly into huge photosynthetic discs to drink the sunlight from the star above. These were not plants, who were life forms still many millions of years in the future. They were not even animals, at least in the sense that we are familiar with. These were Ediacarans, and they were the planet’s first attempt at multicellular life.
For over fifteen million years, perhaps much longer, they dominated the primordial oceans from which they evolved. For fifteen million years they experimented with a multitude of forms and structures, some resembling plants, some resembling rudimentary creatures. Some are even thought to have even developed crude nervous systems and antennae, the first tentative steps towards becoming even more advanced organisms.
Then came the age of predators; the Cambrian Explosion. And with it, their apocalypse.
The Ediacarans are sometimes referred to as nature’s great ‘failed experiment’. This bizarre underwater Eden was easy prey for the newly evolved beings that instead of harmlessly turning light into matter, instead devoured the tissue of others life forms in order to survive. One might say the Ediacarans were doomed to this fate, to be swept aside by ‘fitter’ beings whose bodies would become the template for all animal life; a pointless prologue to evolution proper. But in nature, there is nothing without purpose. Without the Golden Age of the Ediacarans there would have been no Cambrian Explosion to follow. No millennia of photosynthesised energy to consume, nothing to turn into bigger and bigger predators.
The Ediacarans played their role in the great story of life, then vanished.
In the eons that followed many forms of life have taken their turns at dominance, such as the giant insects of the Carboniferous or the reptiles of the Mesozoic. Today, we sit at the tail end of the Cenozoic: the Age of Mammals, an epoch now drawing to a close because a unique species of jungle dwelling primate has disrupted the planetary ecosystem with the force of a celestial hammer.
Our rise to global supremacy can be traced back to at least the Middle Paleolithic when our ancestors moved into Europe at the same time that mysterious side branch of mankind, the Neanderthals, suddenly vanish from the geological records. When we migrated to Australia 50,000 years ago the island’s diverse megafauna began to disappear. The giant flightless bird Genyornis – among the last true successors of the dinosaurs – became extinct soon after our arrival, as did the titanic Diprotodon – the largest marsupial ever to live.
As we migrated through Eurasia at the peak of the last Ice Age, the Mammoth, Wooly Rhinoceros, Elk, Cave Lion, and Giant Rat were amongst the animals that disappeared in our wake. Human colonisation of the Americas at the same time was followed by the decimation of the 70% of large mammals, including the Mammoth, Sabre Toothed Cat, and the American Lion and Horse. The Bison were spared, only to be culled to near extinction in the second wave of colonisation around 500 years ago.
This latest phase of extinctions is even more intensive and accelerated as humans replace the jungle, woodland and savannah environments of their ancestors with a single homogenous steel and concrete mega-habitat. Plants and animals we have use for are artificially bred in vast factory farms and grown in mono-fields and managed forests for foods and textiles, their remains broken down into component chemicals and other industrial products. Life forms we find no use for are forced to adapt to this artificial habitat or fade into oblivion. Extinctions are currently a thousand times higher than the ‘background’ level, sitting at around 27,000 species a year. The seas, where multicellular life first coalesced half a billion years previously, are being systematically emptied of all life. 90% of large predatory fish such as Tuna and Swordfish have disappeared since the advent of industrialisation, and those we don’t dredge from the sea are being poisoned by the rivers of alien toxins our civilisation secretes.
Every year in North America, 6.5 million metric tonnes of fertilisers, pesticides and other exotic chemicals are pumped into the Mississippi, which snakes down the continent to a place in the Gulf of Mexico now called the “dead zone”, because it’s now devoid of all life except the hardiest of primeval bacteria. Similar dead zones exist in Europe, Asia and Oceania, and all of them are swelling into the surrounding seas.
The origins of these dangerous and worryingly abundant chemicals can be traced to the breakthroughs in molecular science in the 1950s, when short-sighted, market driven experiments to solve short term problems like killing insects, emptied into the world futuristic chemicals like organochlorines. These strange molecular hybrids of hydrocarbons and chlorine are not found anywhere else in the known universe, and cannot be metabolised by organic life forms. They instead build up in tissue to cause neurological problems, cancers and birth defects. We release 4.1 billion pounds of pesticides annually, which are cycled through the entire biosphere to the point where wildlife in the fringes of nature, and even unborn humans are poisoned with traces of not only pesticides, but antibacterial agents, flame-retardants, detergents and plasticizers.
Furthermore, current breakthroughs in genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology and quantum computing will inevitably be unleashed on the planet before we can fully comprehend the consequences. Even with the best safeguards in place, it is impossible to know what will happen once these new technologies are released from the laboratory into the real-world environment.
It would be easy to conclude that we are slowly killing nature, certainly the evidence would seem to support such gloomy conclusions. Since the discovery of fossil fuels in the late 19th century, we have unleashed levels of extinction that are fast approaching that of the Permian-Triassic “Great Dying”, when 84% of all life was eradicated. As we crudely remake the planet in our own image mankind has set in motion a genetic holocaust which threatens to consume all living systems. But in nature, there is nothing without purpose.
We typically think that synthetic toxins, nanobots and GM foods as freakish and unnatural. Indeed, most human activity is seen as inherently unnatural. However Darwin has long since demonstrated that we are also a part of nature, therefore it follows that substances like organochlorines are also found in ‘the natural world’. If we forget for a moment our collective egotism about humans being some kind of chosen species that has transcended nature, we can step back and see that our cities and societies are as naturally occurring as termite mounds. That we are devastating our planetary environment is beside the point; 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are extinct, and history has shown that mass extinction is the engine of evolution. Even after the Great Dying, fungi soon evolved in the aftermath to become the dominant form of terrestrial life, flourishing and diversifying in the, cold, dark planetary wasteland to set in motion a new epoch of life.
Perhaps mankind was never destined to build political utopias or galactic civilisations, as we often like to dream. Perhaps we represent an evolutionary critical mass, a living extinction event whose purpose is to press the evolutionary reset button while simultaneously mass producing chemicals that couldn’t even be formed in the heart of a dying star. Perhaps while our selfish quest for lebensraum sends the biodiversity meter plummeting towards zero, we’re inadvertently creating an exotic new primordial soup from which entirely new entities will rise. Perhaps, like the Ediacarans, we will play our role in the great story of life, then vanish.
Perhaps in the wake of Man, even more incredible beings will arise.