The earliest undisputed evidence of life on Earth dates at least from 3.5 billion years ago, during the Archean Era, after a geological crust started to solidify following the earlier molten Hadean Eon. There are microbial mat fossils such as stromatolites found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone discovered in Western Australia. Other early physical evidence of a biogenic substance is graphite in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks discovered in southwestern Greenland as well as “remains of biotic life” found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia. According to one of the researchers, “If life arose relatively quickly on Earth … then it could be common in the universe.”
Independent emergence on Earth
Life on Earth is based on carbon and water. Carbon provides stable frameworks for complex chemicals and can be easily extracted from the environment, especially from carbon dioxide. There is no other chemical element whose properties are similar enough to carbon’s to be called an analogue; silicon, the element directly below carbon on the periodic table, does not form very many complex stable molecules, and because most of its compounds are water-insoluble and because silicon dioxide is a hard and abrasive solid in contrast to carbon dioxide at temperatures associated with living things, it would be more difficult for organisms to extract. The elements boron and phosphorus have more complex chemistries, but suffer from other limitations relative to carbon. Water is an excellent solvent and has two other useful properties: the fact that ice floats enables aquatic organisms to survive beneath it in winter; and its molecules have electrically negative and positive ends, which enables it to form a wider range of compounds than other solvents can. Other good solvents, such as ammonia, are liquid only at such low temperatures that chemical reactions may be too slow to sustain life, and lack water’s other advantages. Organisms based on alternative biochemistry may, however, be possible on other planets.
Research on how life might have emerged from non-living chemicals focuses on three possible starting points: self-replication, an organism’s ability to produce offspring that are very similar to itself; metabolism, its ability to feed and repair itself; and external cell membranes, which allow food to enter and waste products to leave, but exclude unwanted substances. Research on abiogenesis still has a long way to go, since theoretical and empirical approaches are only beginning to make contact with each other.
Photosynthetic organisms appeared between 3.2 and 2.4 billion years ago and began enriching the atmosphere with oxygen. Life remained mostly small and microscopic until about 580 million years ago, when complex multicellular life arose, developed over time, and culminated in the Cambrian Explosion about 541 million years ago. This sudden diversification of life forms produced most of the major phyla known today, and divided the Proterozoic Eon from the Cambrian Period of the Paleozoic Era. It is estimated that 99 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth, over five billion, have gone extinct. Estimates on the number of Earth’s current species range from 10 million to 14 million, of which about 1.2 million are documented, but over 86 percent have not been described. However, it was recently claimed that 1 trillion species currently live on Earth, with only one-thousandth of one percent described. Now that I have given a brief introduction to the creation of life, I will cover it more in depth.
One of the reasons for interest in the early atmosphere and ocean is that they form the conditions under which life first arose. There are many models, but little consensus, on how life emerged from non-living chemicals; chemical systems created in the laboratory fall well short of the minimum complexity for a living organism.
The first step in the emergence of life may have been chemical reactions that produced many of the simpler organic compounds, including nucleobases and amino acids, that are the building blocks of life. An experiment in 1953 by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey showed that such molecules could form in an atmosphere of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen with the aid of sparks to mimic the effect of lightning. Although atmospheric composition was probably different from that used by Miller and Urey, later experiments with more realistic compositions also managed to synthesize organic molecules. Computer simulations show that extraterrestrial organic molecules could have formed in the protoplanetary disk before the formation of the Earth.
Additional complexity could have been reached from at least three possible starting points: self-replication, an organism’s ability to produce offspring that are similar to itself; metabolism, its ability to feed and repair itself; and external cell membranes, which allow food to enter and waste products to leave, but exclude unwanted substances.
Replication first: RNA world
Even the simplest members of the three modern domains of life use DNA to record their “recipes” and a complex array of RNA and protein molecules to “read” these instructions and use them for growth, maintenance, and self-replication.
The discovery that a kind of RNA molecule called a ribozyme can catalyze both its own replication and the construction of proteins led to the hypothesis that earlier life-forms were based entirely on RNA. They could have formed an RNA world in which there were individuals but no species, as mutations and horizontal gene transfers would have meant that the offspring in each generation were quite likely to have different genomes from those that their parents started with. RNA would later have been replaced by DNA, which is more stable and therefore can build longer genomes, expanding the range of capabilities a single organism can have. Ribozymes remain as the main components of ribosomes, the “protein factories” of modern cells.
Although short, self-replicating RNA molecules have been artificially produced in laboratories, doubts have been raised about whether natural non-biological synthesis of RNA is possible. The earliest ribozymes may have been formed of simpler nucleic acids such as PNA, TNA or GNA, which would have been replaced later by RNA. Other pre-RNA replicators have been posited, including crystals and even quantum systems.
In 2003 it was proposed that porous metal sulfide precipitates would assist RNA synthesis at about 100 °C (212 °F) and at ocean-bottom pressures near hydrothermal vents. In this hypothesis, the proto-cells would be confined in the pores of the metal substrate until the later development of lipid membranes.
Metabolism first: iron–sulfur world
Another long-standing hypothesis is that the first life was composed of protein molecules. Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are easily synthesized in plausible prebiotic conditions, as are small peptides (polymers of amino acids) that make good catalysts. A series of experiments starting in 1997 showed that amino acids and peptides could form in the presence of carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide with iron sulfide and nickel sulfide as catalysts. Most of the steps in their assembly required temperatures of about 100 °C (212 °F) and moderate pressures, although one stage required 250 °C (482 °F) and a pressure equivalent to that found under 7 kilometers (4.3 mi) of rock. Hence, self-sustaining synthesis of proteins could have occurred near hydrothermal vents.
A difficulty with the metabolism-first scenario is finding a way for organisms to evolve. Without the ability to replicate as individuals, aggregates of molecules would have “compositional genomes” (counts of molecular species in the aggregate) as the target of natural selection. However, a recent model shows that such a system is unable to evolve in response to natural selection.
Membranes first: Lipid world
It has been suggested that double-walled “bubbles” of lipids like those that form the external membranes of cells may have been an essential first step. Experiments that simulated the conditions of the early Earth have reported the formation of lipids, and these can spontaneously form liposomes, double-walled “bubbles”, and then reproduce themselves. Although they are not intrinsically information-carriers as nucleic acids are, they would be subject to natural selection for longevity and reproduction. Nucleic acids such as RNA might then have formed more easily within the liposomes than they would have outside.
Cross-section through a liposome
The clay theory
Some clays, notably montmorillonite, have properties that make them plausible accelerators for the emergence of an RNA world: they grow by self-replication of their crystalline pattern, are subject to an analog of natural selection (as the clay “species” that grows fastest in a particular environment rapidly becomes dominant), and can catalyze the formation of RNA molecules. Although this idea has not become the scientific consensus, it still has active supporters.
Research in 2003 reported that montmorillonite could also accelerate the conversion of fatty acids into “bubbles”, and that the bubbles could encapsulate RNA attached to the clay. Bubbles can then grow by absorbing additional lipids and dividing. The formation of the earliest cells may have been aided by similar processes.
A similar hypothesis presents self-replicating iron-rich clays as the progenitors of nucleotides, lipids and amino acids.
Last universal ancestor
It is believed that of this multiplicity of protocells, only one line survived. Current phylogenetic evidence suggests that the last universal ancestor (LUA) lived during the early Archean eon, perhaps 3.5 Ga or earlier. This LUA cell is the ancestor of all life on Earth today. It was probably a prokaryote, possessing a cell membrane and probably ribosomes, but lacking a nucleus or membrane-bound organelles such as mitochondria or chloroplasts. Like modern cells, it used DNA as its genetic code, RNA for information transfer and protein synthesis, and enzymes to catalyze reactions. Some scientists believe that instead of a single organism being the last universal common ancestor, there were populations of organisms exchanging genes by lateral gene transfer.
The earliest cells absorbed energy and food from the surrounding environment. They used fermentation, the breakdown of more complex compounds into less complex compounds with less energy, and used the energy so liberated to grow and reproduce. Fermentation can only occur in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. The evolution of photosynthesis made it possible for cells to derive energy from the Sun.
Most of the life that covers the surface of the Earth depends directly or indirectly on photosynthesis. The most common form, oxygenic photosynthesis, turns carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight into food. It captures the energy of sunlight in energy-rich molecules such as ATP, which then provide the energy to make sugars. To supply the electrons in the circuit, hydrogen is stripped from water, leaving oxygen as a waste product. Some organisms, including purple bacteria and green sulfur bacteria, use an anoxygenic form of photosynthesis that uses alternatives to hydrogen stripped from water as electron donors; examples are hydrogen sulfide, sulfur and iron. Such extremophile organisms are restricted to otherwise inhospitable environments such as hot springs and hydrothermal vents.
The simpler anoxygenic form arose about 3.8 Ga, not long after the appearance of life. The timing of oxygenic photosynthesis is more controversial; it had certainly appeared by about 2.4 Ga, but some researchers put it back as far as 3.2 Ga. The latter “probably increased global productivity by at least two or three orders of magnitude” Among the oldest remnants of oxygen-producing lifeforms are fossil stromatolites.
At first, the released oxygen was bound up with limestone, iron, and other minerals. The oxidized iron appears as red layers in geological strata called banded iron formations that formed in abundance during the Siderian period (between 2500 Ma and 2300 Ma). When most of the exposed readily reacting minerals were oxidized, oxygen finally began to accumulate in the atmosphere. Though each cell only produced a minute amount of oxygen, the combined metabolism of many cells over a vast time transformed Earth’s atmosphere to its current state. This was Earth’s third atmosphere.
Some oxygen was stimulated by solar ultraviolet radiation to form ozone, which collected in a layer near the upper part of the atmosphere. The ozone layer absorbed, and still absorbs, a significant amount of the ultraviolet radiation that once had passed through the atmosphere. It allowed cells to colonize the surface of the ocean and eventually the land: without the ozone layer, ultraviolet radiation bombarding land and sea would have caused unsustainable levels of mutation in exposed cells.
Photosynthesis had another major impact. Oxygen was toxic; much life on Earth probably died out as its levels rose in what is known as the oxygen catastrophe. Resistant forms survived and thrived, and some developed the ability to use oxygen to increase their metabolism and obtain more energy from the same food.
Emergence of eukaryotes
Modern taxonomy classifies life into three domains. The time of their origin is uncertain. The Bacteria domain probably first split off from the other forms of life (sometimes called Neomura), but this supposition is controversial. Soon after this, by 2 Ga, the Neomura split into the Archaea and the Eukarya. Eukaryotic cells (Eukarya) are larger and more complex than prokaryotic cells (Bacteria and Archaea), and the origin of that complexity is only now becoming known. The earliest fossils possessing features typical of fungi date to the Paleoproterozoic era, some 2.4 ago; these multicellular benthic organisms had filamentous structures capable of anastomosis.
One possible family tree of eukaryotes
Around this time, the first proto-mitochondrion was formed. A bacterial cell related to today’s Rickettsia, which had evolved to metabolize oxygen, entered a larger prokaryotic cell, which lacked that capability. Perhaps the large cell attempted to digest the smaller one but failed (possibly due to the evolution of prey defenses). The smaller cell may have tried to parasitize the larger one. In any case, the smaller cell survived inside the larger cell. Using oxygen, it metabolized the larger cell’s waste products and derived more energy. Part of this excess energy was returned to the host. The smaller cell replicated inside the larger one. Soon, a stable symbiosis developed between the large cell and the smaller cells inside it. Over time, the host cell acquired some genes from the smaller cells, and the two kinds became dependent on each other: the larger cell could not survive without the energy produced by the smaller ones, and these, in turn, could not survive without the raw materials provided by the larger cell. The whole cell is now considered a single organism, and the smaller cells are classified as organelles called mitochondria.
A similar event occurred with photosynthetic cyanobacteria entering large heterotrophic cells and becoming chloroplasts. Probably as a result of these changes, a line of cells capable of photosynthesis split off from the other eukaryotes more than 1 billion years ago. There were probably several such inclusion events. Besides the well-established endosymbiotic theory of the cellular origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts, there are theories that cells led to peroxisomes, spirochetes led to cilia and flagella, and that perhaps a DNA virus led to the cell nucleus, though none of them are widely accepted.
Evolution of sexual reproduction
The defining characteristics of sexual reproduction in eukaryotes are meiosis and fertilization, resulting in genetic recombination, giving offspring 50% of their genes from each parent. By contrast, in asexual reproduction there is no recombination, but occasional horizontal gene transfer. Bacteria also exchange DNA by bacterial conjugation, enabling the spread of resistance to antibiotics and other toxins, and the ability to utilize new metabolites. However, conjugation is not a means of reproduction, and is not limited to members of the same species – there are cases where bacteria transfer DNA to plants and animals.
On the other hand, bacterial transformation is clearly an adaptation for transfer of DNA between bacteria of the same species. This is a complex process involving the products of numerous bacterial genes and can be regarded as a bacterial form of sex. This process occurs naturally in at least 67 prokaryotic species (in seven different phyla). Sexual reproduction in eukaryotes may have evolved from bacterial transformation.
The disadvantages of sexual reproduction are well-known: the genetic reshuffle of recombination may break up favorable combinations of genes; and since males do not directly increase the number of offspring in the next generation, an asexual population can out-breed and displace in as little as 50 generations a sexual population that is equal in every other respect. Nevertheless, the great majority of animals, plants, fungi and protists reproduce sexually. There is strong evidence that sexual reproduction arose early in the history of eukaryotes and that the genes controlling it have changed very little since then. How sexual reproduction evolved and survived is an unsolved puzzle.
The Red Queen hypothesis suggests that sexual reproduction provides protection against parasites, because it is easier for parasites to evolve means of overcoming the defenses of genetically identical clones than those of sexual species that present moving targets, and there is some experimental evidence for this. However, there is still doubt about whether it would explain the survival of sexual species if multiple similar clone species were present, as one of the clones may survive the attacks of parasites for long enough to out-breed the sexual species. Furthermore, contrary to the expectations of the Red Queen hypothesis, Kathryn A. Hanley et al. found that the prevalence, abundance and mean intensity of mites was significantly higher in sexual geckos than in asexuals sharing the same habitat. In addition, biologist Matthew Parker, after reviewing numerous genetic studies on plant disease resistance, failed to find a single example consistent with the concept that pathogens are the primary selective agent responsible for sexual reproduction in the host.
Alexey Kondrashov‘s deterministic mutation hypothesis (DMH) assumes that each organism has more than one harmful mutation and the combined effects of these mutations are more harmful than the sum of the harm done by each individual mutation. If so, sexual recombination of genes will reduce the harm that bad mutations do to offspring and at the same time eliminate some bad mutations from the gene pool by isolating them in individuals that perish quickly because they have an above-average number of bad mutations. However, the evidence suggests that the DMH’s assumptions are shaky because many species have on average less than one harmful mutation per individual and no species that has been investigated shows evidence of synergy between harmful mutations.
The random nature of recombination causes the relative abundance of alternative traits to vary from one generation to another. This genetic drift is insufficient on its own to make sexual reproduction advantageous, but a combination of genetic drift and natural selection may be sufficient. When chance produces combinations of good traits, natural selection gives a large advantage to lineages in which these traits become genetically linked. On the other hand, the benefits of good traits are neutralized if they appear along with bad traits. Sexual recombination gives good traits the opportunities to become linked with other good traits, and mathematical models suggest this may be more than enough to offset the disadvantages of sexual reproduction. Other combinations of hypotheses that are inadequate on their own are also being examined.
The adaptive function of sex remains a major unresolved issue in biology. The competing models to explain it were reviewed by John A. Birdsell and Christopher Wills. The hypotheses discussed above all depend on the possible beneficial effects of random genetic variation produced by genetic recombination. An alternative view is that sex arose and is maintained as a process for repairing DNA damage, and that the genetic variation produced is an occasionally beneficial byproduct.
The simplest definitions of “multicellular,” for example “having multiple cells,” could include colonial cyanobacteria like Nostoc. Even a technical definition such as “having the same genome but different types of cell” would still include some genera of the green algae Volvox, which have cells that specialize in reproduction. Multicellularity evolved independently in organisms as diverse as sponges and other animals, fungi, plants, brown algae, cyanobacteria, slime molds and myxobacteria. For the sake of brevity, this article focuses on the organisms that show the greatest specialization of cells and variety of cell types, although this approach to the evolution of biological complexity could be regarded as “rather anthropocentric.”
A slime mold solves a maze. The mold (yellow) explored and filled the maze (left). When the researchers placed sugar (red) at two separate points, the mold concentrated most of its mass there and left only the most efficient connection between the two points (right).
The initial advantages of multicellularity may have included: more efficient sharing of nutrients that are digested outside the cell, increased resistance to predators, many of which attacked by engulfing; the ability to resist currents by attaching to a firm surface; the ability to reach upwards to filter-feed or to obtain sunlight for photosynthesis; the ability to create an internal environment that gives protection against the external one; and even the opportunity for a group of cells to behave “intelligently” by sharing information. These features would also have provided opportunities for other organisms to diversify, by creating more varied environments than flat microbial mats could.
Multicellularity with differentiated cells is beneficial to the organism as a whole but disadvantageous from the point of view of individual cells, most of which lose the opportunity to reproduce themselves. In an asexual multicellular organism, rogue cells which retain the ability to reproduce may take over and reduce the organism to a mass of undifferentiated cells. Sexual reproduction eliminates such rogue cells from the next generation and therefore appears to be a prerequisite for complex multicellularity.
The available evidence indicates that eukaryotes evolved much earlier but remained inconspicuous until a rapid diversification around 1 Ga. The only respect in which eukaryotes clearly surpass bacteria and archaea is their capacity for variety of forms, and sexual reproduction enabled eukaryotes to exploit that advantage by producing organisms with multiple cells that differed in form and function.
By comparing the composition of transcription factor families and regulatory network motifs between unicellular organisms and multicellular organisms, scientists found there are many novel transcription factor families and three novel types of regulatory network motifs in multicellular organisms, and novel family transcription factors are preferentially wired into these novel network motifs which are essential for multicullular development. These results propose a plausible mechanism for the contribution of novel-family transcription factors and novel network motifs to the origin of multicellular organisms at transcriptional regulatory level.
Archaeans, bacteria, and eukaryotes continued to diversify and to become more complex and better adapted to their environments. Each domain repeatedly split into multiple lineages, although little is known about the history of the archaea and bacteria. Around 1.1 Ga, the supercontinent Rodinia was assembling. The plant, animal, and fungi lines had split, though they still existed as solitary cells. Some of these lived in colonies, and gradually a division of labor began to take place; for instance, cells on the periphery might have started to assume different roles from those in the interior. Although the division between a colony with specialized cells and a multicellular organism is not always clear, around 1 billion years ago, the first multicellular plants emerged, probably green algae. Possibly by around 900 million years true multicellularity had also evolved in animals.
At first, it probably resembled today’s sponges, which have totipotent cells that allow a disrupted organism to reassemble itself. As the division of labor was completed in all lines of multicellular organisms, cells became more specialized and more dependent on each other; isolated cells would die.
Animals are multicellular eukaryotes, and are distinguished from plants, algae, and fungi by lacking cell walls. All animals are motile, if only at certain life stages. All animals except sponges have bodies differentiated into separate tissues, including muscles, which move parts of the animal by contracting, and nerve tissue, which transmits and processes signals. In November 2019, researchers reported the discovery of Caveasphaera, a multicellular organism found in 609-million-year-old rocks, that is not easily defined as an animal or non-animal, which may be related to one of the earliest instances of animal evolution. Fossil studies of Caveasphaera have suggested that animal-like embryonic development arose much earlier than the oldest clearly defined animal fossils. and may be consistent with studies suggesting that animal evolution may have begun about 750 million years ago.
Nonetheless, the earliest widely accepted animal fossils are the rather modern-looking cnidarians (the group that includes jellyfish, sea anemones and Hydra), possibly from around 580 Ma, although fossils from the Doushantuo Formation can only be dated approximately. Their presence implies that the cnidarian and bilaterian lineages had already diverged.
The Ediacara biota, which flourished for the last 40 million years before the start of the Cambrian, were the first animals more than a very few centimetres long. Many were flat and had a “quilted” appearance, and seemed so strange that there was a proposal to classify them as a separate kingdom, Vendozoa. Others, however, have been interpreted as early molluscs, echinoderms, and arthropods. There is still debate about the classification of these specimens, mainly because the diagnostic features which allow taxonomists to classify more recent organisms, such as similarities to living organisms, are generally absent in the Ediacarans. However, there seems little doubt that Kimberella was at least a triploblastic bilaterian animal, in other words, an animal significantly more complex than the cnidarians.
The small shelly fauna are a very mixed collection of fossils found between the Late Ediacaran and Middle Cambrian periods. The earliest, Cloudina, shows signs of successful defense against predation and may indicate the start of an evolutionary arms race. Some tiny Early Cambrian shells almost certainly belonged to molluscs, while the owners of some “armor plates,” Halkieria and Microdictyon, were eventually identified when more complete specimens were found in Cambrian lagerstätten that preserved soft-bodied animals.
In the 1970s there was already a debate about whether the emergence of the modern phyla was “explosive” or gradual but hidden by the shortage of Precambrian animal fossils. A re-analysis of fossils from the Burgess Shale lagerstätte increased interest in the issue when it revealed animals, such as Opabinia, which did not fit into any known phylum. At the time these were interpreted as evidence that the modern phyla had evolved very rapidly in the Cambrian explosion and that the Burgess Shale’s “weird wonders” showed that the Early Cambrian was a uniquely experimental period of animal evolution. Later discoveries of similar animals and the development of new theoretical approaches led to the conclusion that many of the “weird wonders” were evolutionary “aunts” or “cousins” of modern groups—for example that Opabinia was a member of the lobopods, a group which includes the ancestors of the arthropods, and that it may have been closely related to the modern tardigrades. Nevertheless, there is still much debate about whether the Cambrian explosion was really explosive and, if so, how and why it happened and why it appears unique in the history of animals.
Most of the animals at the heart of the Cambrian explosion debate are protostomes, one of the two main groups of complex animals. The other major group, the deuterostomes, contains invertebrates such as starfish and sea urchins (echinoderms), as well as chordates. Many echinoderms have hard calcite “shells,” which are fairly common from the Early Cambrian small shelly fauna onwards. Other deuterostome groups are soft-bodied, and most of the significant Cambrian deuterostome fossils come from the Chengjiang fauna, a lagerstätte in China. The chordates are another major deuterostome group: animals with a distinct dorsal nerve cord. Chordates include soft-bodied invertebrates such as tunicates as well as vertebrates—animals with a backbone. While tunicate fossils predate the Cambrian explosion, the Chengjiang fossils Haikouichthys and Myllokunmingia appear to be true vertebrates, and Haikouichthys had distinct vertebrae, which may have been slightly mineralized. Vertebrates with jaws, such as the acanthodians, first appeared in the Late Ordovician.
The rate of the evolution of life as recorded by fossils accelerated in the Cambrian period (542–488 Ma). The sudden emergence of many new species, phyla, and forms in this period is called the Cambrian Explosion. The biological fomenting in the Cambrian Explosion was unprecedented before and since that time. Whereas the Ediacaran life forms appear yet primitive and not easy to put in any modern group, at the end of the Cambrian most modern phyla were already present. The development of hard body parts such as shells, skeletons or exoskeletons in animals like molluscs, echinoderms, crinoids and arthropods (a well-known group of arthropods from the lower Paleozoic are the trilobites) made the preservation and fossilization of such life forms easier than those of their Proterozoic ancestors. For this reason, much more is known about life in and after the Cambrian than about that of older periods. Some of these Cambrian groups appear complex but are seemingly quite different from modern life; examples are Anomalocaris and Haikouichthys. More recently, however, these seem to have found a place in modern classification.
During the Cambrian, the first vertebrate animals, among them the first fishes, had appeared.A creature that could have been the ancestor of the fishes, or was probably closely related to it, was Pikaia. It had a primitive notochord, a structure that could have developed into a vertebral column later. The first fishes with jaws (Gnathostomata) appeared during the next geological period, the Ordovician. The colonisation of new niches resulted in massive body sizes. In this way, fishes with increasing sizes evolved during the early Paleozoic, such as the titanic placoderm Dunkleosteus, which could grow 7 meters (23 ft) long.
The diversity of life forms did not increase greatly because of a series of mass extinctions that define widespread biostratigraphic units called biomeres. After each extinction pulse, the continental shelf regions were repopulated by similar life forms that may have been evolving slowly elsewhere. By the late Cambrian, the trilobites had reached their greatest diversity and dominated nearly all fossil assemblages.
Colonization of land
Adaptation to life on land is a major challenge: all land organisms need to avoid drying-out and all those above microscopic size must create special structures to withstand gravity; respiration and gas exchange systems have to change; reproductive systems cannot depend on water to carry eggs and sperm towards eachother. Although the earliest good evidence of land plants and animals dates back to the Ordovician period (488 to 444 Ma), and a number of microorganism lineages made it onto land much earlier, modern land ecosystems only appeared in the Late Devonian, about 385 to 359 Ma. In May 2017, evidence of the earliest known life on land may have been found in 3.48-billion-year-old geyserite and other related mineral deposits (often found around hot springs and geysers) uncovered in the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia. In July 2018, scientists reported that the earliest life on land may have been bacteria living on land 3.22 billion years ago. In May 2019, scientists reported the discovery of a fossilizedfungus, named Ourasphaira giraldae, in the Canadian Arctic, that may have grown on land a billion years ago, well before plants were living on land.
Evolution of terrestrial antioxidants
Oxygen accumulation from photosynthesis resulted in the formation of an ozone layer that absorbed much of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, meaning unicellular organisms that reached land were less likely to die, and prokaryotes began to multiply and become better adapted to survival out of the water. Prokaryote lineages had probably colonized the land as early as 2.6 Ga even before the origin of the eukaryotes. For a long time, the land remained barren of multicellular organisms. The supercontinent Pannotia formed around 600 Ma and then broke apart a short 50 million years later. Fish, the earliest vertebrates, evolved in the oceans around 530 Ma. A major extinction event occurred near the end of the Cambrian period, which ended 488 Ma.
Several hundred million years ago, plants (probably resembling algae) and fungi started growing at the edges of the water, and then out of it. The oldest fossils of land fungi and plants date to 480–460 Ma, though molecular evidence suggests the fungi may have colonized the land as early as 1000 Ma and the plants 700 Ma. Initially remaining close to the water’s edge, mutations and variations resulted in further colonization of this new environment. The timing of the first animals to leave the oceans is not precisely known: the oldest clear evidence is of arthropods on land around 450 Ma, perhaps thriving and becoming better adapted due to the vast food source provided by the terrestrial plants. There is also unconfirmed evidence that arthropods may have appeared on land as early as 530 Ma.
Evolution of tetrapods
At the end of the Ordovician period, 443 Ma, additional extinction events occurred, perhaps due to a concurrent ice age. Around 380 to 375 Ma, the first tetrapods evolved from fish. Fins evolved to become limbs that the first tetrapods used to lift their heads out of the water to breathe air. This would let them live in oxygen-poor water, or pursue small prey in shallow water. They may have later ventured on land for brief periods. Eventually, some of them became so well adapted to terrestrial life that they spent their adult lives on land, although they hatched in the water and returned to lay their eggs. This was the origin of the amphibians. About 365 Ma, another period of extinction occurred, perhaps as a result of global cooling. Plants evolved seeds, which dramatically accelerated their spread on land, around this time (by approximately 360 Ma).
About 20 million years later (340 Ma), the amniotic egg evolved, which could be laid on land, giving a survival advantage to tetrapod embryos. This resulted in the divergence of amniotes from amphibians. Another 30 million years (310 Ma) saw the divergence of the synapsids (including mammals) from the sauropsids (including birds and reptiles). Other groups of organisms continued to evolve, and lines diverged—in fish, insects, bacteria, and so on—but less is known of the details.
After yet another, the most severe extinction of the period, around 230 Ma, dinosaurs split off from their reptilian ancestors. The Triassic–Jurassic extinction event at 200 Ma spared many of the dinosaurs, and they soon became dominant among the vertebrates. Though some mammalian lines began to separate during this period, existing mammals were probably small animals resembling shrews. The boundary between avian and non-avian dinosaurs is not clear, but Archaeopteryx, traditionally considered one of the first birds, lived around 150 Ma. The earliest evidence for the angiosperms evolving flowers is during the Cretaceous period, some 20 million years later (132 Ma).
Diversification of mammals
The first true mammals evolved in the shadows of dinosaurs and other large archosaurs that filled the world by the late Triassic. The first mammals were very small, and were probably nocturnal to escape predation. Mammal diversification truly began only after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. By the early Paleocene the earth recovered from the extinction, and mammalian diversity increased. Creatures like Ambulocetus took to the oceans to eventually evolve into whales, whereas some creatures, like primates, took to the trees. This all changed during the mid to late Eocene when the circum-Antarctic current formed between Antarctica and Australia which disrupted weather patterns on a global scale. Grassless savanna began to predominate much of the landscape, and mammals such as Andrewsarchus rose up to become the largest known terrestrial predatory mammal ever, and early whales like Basilosaurus took control of the seas.
The evolution of grass brought a remarkable change to the Earth’s landscape, and the new open spaces created pushed mammals to get bigger and bigger. Grass started to expand in the Miocene, and the Miocene is where many modern- day mammals first appeared. Giant ungulates like Paraceratherium and Deinotherium evolved to rule the grasslands. The evolution of grass also brought primates down from the trees, and started human evolution. The first big cats evolved during this time as well. The Tethys Sea was closed off by the collision of Africa and Europe.
The formation of Panama was perhaps the most important geological event to occur in the last 60 million years. Atlantic and Pacific currents were closed off from each other, which caused the formation of the Gulf Stream, which made Europe warmer. The land bridge allowed the isolated creatures of South America to migrate over to North America, and vice versa. Various species migrated south, leading to the presence in South America of llamas, the spectacled bear, kinkajous and jaguars.
Three million years ago saw the start of the Pleistocene epoch, which featured dramatic climactic changes due to the ice ages. The ice ages led to the evolution of modern man in Saharan Africa and expansion. The mega-fauna that dominated fed on grasslands that, by now, had taken over much of the subtropical world. The large amounts of water held in the ice allowed for various bodies of water to shrink and sometimes disappear such as the North Sea and the Bering Strait. It is believed by many that a huge migration took place along Beringia which is why, today, there are camels (which evolved and became extinct in North America), horses (which evolved and became extinct in North America), and Native Americans. The ending of the last ice age coincided with the expansion of man, along with a massive die out of ice age mega-fauna. This extinction is nicknamed “the Sixth Extinction“.
It is more difficult to establish the origin of language; it is unclear whether Homo erectus could speak or if that capability had not begun until Homo sapiens. As brain size increased, babies were born earlier, before their heads grew too large to pass through the pelvis. As a result, they exhibited more plasticity, and thus possessed an increased capacity to learn and required a longer period of dependence. Social skills became more complex, language became more sophisticated, and tools became more elaborate. This contributed to further cooperation and intellectual development. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are believed to have originated around 200,000 years ago or earlier in Africa; the oldest fossils date back to around 160,000 years ago.
The first humans to show signs of spirituality are the Neanderthals (usually classified as a separate species with no surviving descendants); they buried their dead, often with no sign of food or tools. However, evidence of more sophisticated beliefs, such as the early Cro-Magnon cave paintings (probably with magical or religious significance) did not appear until 32,000 years ago. Cro-Magnons also left behind stone figurines such as Venus of Willendorf, probably also signifying religious belief. By 11,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had reached the southern tip of South America, the last of the uninhabited continents (except for Antarctica, which remained undiscovered until 1820 AD). Tool use and communication continued to improve, and interpersonal relationships became more intricate.
Throughout more than 90% of its history, Homo sapiens lived in small bands as nomadic hunter-gatherers. As language became more complex, the ability to remember and communicate information resulted, according to a theory proposed by Richard Dawkins, in a new replicator: the meme. Ideas could be exchanged quickly and passed down the generations. Cultural evolution quickly outpaced biological evolution, and history proper began. Between 8500 and 7000 BC, humans in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East began the systematic husbandry of plants and animals: agriculture. This spread to neighboring regions, and developed independently elsewhere, until most Homo sapiens lived sedentary lives in permanent settlements as farmers. Not all societies abandoned nomadism, especially those in isolated areas of the globe poor in domesticable plant species, such as Australia. However, among those civilizations that did adopt agriculture, the relative stability and increased productivity provided by farming allowed the population to expand.
Agriculture had a major impact; humans began to affect the environment as never before. Surplus food allowed a priestly or governing class to arise, followed by increasing division of labor. This led to Earth’s first civilization at Sumer in the Middle East, between 4000 and 3000 BC. Additional civilizations quickly arose in ancient Egypt, at the Indus River valley and in China. The invention of writing enabled complex societies to arise: record-keeping and libraries served as a storehouse of knowledge and increased the cultural transmission of information. Humans no longer had to spend all their time working for survival, enabling the first specialized occupations (e.g. craftsmen, merchants, priests, etc.). Curiosity and education drove the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and various disciplines, including science (in a primitive form), arose. This in turn led to the emergence of increasingly larger and more complex civilizations, such as the first empires, which at times traded with one another, or fought for territory and resources.
By around 500 BC, there were advanced civilizations in the Middle East, Iran, India, China, and Greece, at times expanding, at times entering into decline. In 221 BC, China became a single polity that would grow to spread its culture throughout East Asia, and it has remained the most populous nation in the world. The fundamentals of Western civilization were largely shaped in Ancient Greece, with the world’s first democratic government and major advances in philosophy, science, and mathematics, and in Ancient Rome in law, government, and engineering. The Roman Empire was Christianized by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century and declined by the end of the 5th. Beginning with the 7th century, Christianization of Europe began. In 610, Islam was founded and quickly became the dominant religion in Western Asia. The House of Wisdom was established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq. It is considered to have been a major intellectual center during the Islamic Golden Age, where Muslim scholars in Baghdad and Cairo flourished from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries until the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 AD. In 1054 AD the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church led to the prominent cultural differences between Western and Eastern Europe. I won’t cover any more of our history, because I will quote a famous radio icon Paul Harvey, “And now you know the rest of the story!”
en.wikipedia.org, “History of Earth,” By Wikipedia Editors;