This silly little struggle with getting hand soap out of a bottle calls up the fundamental struggle of life: the evolution through mystery, struggle, discovery, use, routine, and finally assumption. While soap is a technology about as old as any recorded history, we are the beneficiaries of billions of years of evolving inherent knowledge. Every living thing on Earth is. We are just the most dominant beneficiaries of that history.
What I mean by progress, is not really technology, but technology is a pretty good word for it. Wetware is a cute cyberpunk coinage for it. We can track the adoption of different techniques for living between extant species and back through the fossil record. It is a varied and long history that I only began to piece together when I became interested in the history of transportation. This chapter is a brief history of life on earth, with many of the advances that got us here, condensed for time’s sake.
For the sake of understanding time in numbers we can comprehending, I’m going to use days, not years , to express time. I found out a neat fact in my research, and I think its worth considering. 900 million years ago, there were 481 18 hour days in a year. Same number of hours in a year, but the Earth’s rotation has been slowing ever since, and was even faster before that. I don’t now if it was set spinning by the collision that formed the moon (4.5 bya), but since life is thought to have formed 500 million years after that, the simple linear extrapolation should suffice.
In a discussion of the history of life, I face a real danger of sounding glib about that which has already happened at preordained. Worse than that, I also face that danger of ascribing will and ingenuity to the simplest organisms. I might say a false sentence,like “bacteria figured out photosynthesis” when there was no such ingenious proto-inventor. Rather, quadrillions of bacteria over trillions of generations get to try a lot of variations within their exceedingly large populations. Gradual changes, bottlenecks or dramatic punctuated changes in environments and advantage sculpted early life, on d the fern life we made from it, over the course of nonillions of life-or death decisions. It took about half the history of life (4 bya to >2.1 bya) for nucleated cells with organelles to form. 75% of the history of life was without sexual reproduction. Life is literally invention by infinite monkeys.
And really, this is the way invention work, even with our personal and emotional struggles and heroes with it. It is incorrect to say that the lightbulb has always been a thing. It is also incorrect to say that in 1879, the lightbulb happened. It is still incorrect to say that Thomas Alva Edison invented the lightbulb. He had to struggle at it s invention through experiment, he had a staff of hundreds, and he was expanding and extending on previous attempts at electric illumination. It is even incorrect to say that this team and lineage of researchers invented the lightbulb, as they depended on the wider lineage of evacuation, glassmaking, electricity, and winemaking to make that first lightbulb. If Thomas Edison was laboring a hundred years earlier, the notion of a lightbulb would be as meaningless to him as transparent aluminum is to us today. He would have worked in gas and steam. The first gas lights weren’t installed in cities unit the 1810s. An electric lightbulb required that the technology be ready for it. Its invention was an artifact of its time. Ir required the pile of history and discovery under it to even exist
Our third or forth neat trick was photosynthesis (3.5 bya), which early cyanobacteria did with that aid of the first chlorophyll. Over the next 2.5 billion years, cyanobacteria and later single-celled photosynthetic animals like Euglena filled the atmosphere with oxygen, changing it from a reducing CO2 atmosphere to a oxygen atmosphere. This was no mean feat, as the atmosphere is over 12 billion cubic miles and weighs over 5 quadrillion tons, but they had time on their side. The third known hack, or trick of biological technology, is the thing that allows me to write this, and basically set up the food chain of plants to animals as we know it.
At first, bacteria’s only source of energy was inorganic oxidation with what elements could be found. This was how archaebacteria get their energy for the first 1.5 billion years of life. As oxygen, organic life, and glucose became more abundant, bacteria developed the Krebs cycle to digest what they had been eating (2.5 bya), which was increasingly each other. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the modern currency of cellular energy, was first used to carry energy for cellular movement and metabolism at this time.
The next big leap in us becoming us was the colonization of bacterial cells by mitochondria and chloroplast cells (2.1 bya). In modern plant cells, there are actually three sets of DNA. Nuclear, Mitochondrial, and Chloroplastic. This is the world’s oldest and most fundamental symbiosis. We inherit nuclear DNA from our mother and father, but we on;y inherit mitochondria DNA from our mother, in the organelles of the egg cell. However, early eukaryotes didn’t figure out sexual reproduction (1.2 bya) until 900 million years after mitochondria and chloroplasts. They reproduced the way bacteria had for billions of years, through mitosis and budding.
Stromatolites off the Australian coast
Now about three-fourths the way through the history of life, BTW