A Stirring and Beautiful Journey Through Time

by Jennifer Frazer on June 4, 2009

wiki_trilobites_heinrich_harderIt’s been 4.5 billion years since Earth formed, and oh, what a long, strange trip it’s been. National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting has created a beautiful slide show set to music about the evolution of life on Earth to help you experience it in considerably less time.

The online version consists of 86 photographs with crisp captions that follow the history-of-life artistic tradition of the Rite of Spring from Fantasia (check out the amoeba!) and any number of other museum murals and books. It’s a pleasing sensory experience, something akin to a brain back rub, if such a thing is possible.

I have only a few quibbles; the Cretaceous seems to have been a particularly groovy era of Earth history based on its inexplicable 70’s-game-show musical interlude, and there are a few inaccuracies (i.e. the spacing of the pictures in the time line is SO not to scale; chlorophyll does not fuel all life). But these are minor and beside the point.

He has also created a live action version featuring music by Philip Glass and “images, dance[ed. note — I’m suddenly envisioning giant isopod be-costumed dancers prancing across the stage], film, and science.” The premiere will be June 10 in New York City, and will include as guest of honor one of my three science heroes — E. O. Wilson (love you E.O.! Wish I could be there to meet you!) — along with a slew of other stars and scientists including Alan Alda, Harrison Ford, and James Watson, the Watson half of Watson and Crick (the guys who along with Rosalind Franklin figured out the structure of DNA).

The online slide show does suffer a bit from the common problems of the genre laid out by Stephen Jay Gould in the preface to his Book of Life; first, the omission of “simple” creatures like microbes, invertebrates, and fungi from the show after vertebrates appear, with the attending implication that they stop evolving after their appearance.

On the contrary. Invertebrates, fungi (actually, fungi never even appear in the show except as lichens), microbes and ferns have all continued evolving and adapting. One diorama at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science featuring conifers from the late Paleozoic/early Mesozoic shows conifers with shockingly (to my eyes) broad leaves. Needles only evolved later.

The second problem is the implication that evolution is a predictable and inevitable march of increasing superiority resulting in the evolution of Homo sapiens, the be-all end-all. It’s hard to get around this problem, though, since it’s nice to highlight major novelties (and let’s face it, flowering plants, mammalian diversification, and humans were indeed major novelties) in chronological order, and humans did arrive very late on the scene.

Finally, there is the problem of time distortion, magnified in this case by the skewed presentation of the time line. For most of Earth’s history (probably the first 3 billion years anyway), life was simple and microbial. But we get only a handful of pictures devoted to that, and dozens of pictures devoted to the last 500 million years. It’d be a pretty boring slideshow if he didn’t present it this way (if for no other reason than we don’t have much information about what that early life looked like), but it’s a distortion nonetheless. Would it be so hard to make the timeline to scale, anyway?

Check out the slideshow first, but when you are done looking at it, check out the timeline. Choosing each image reveals extras including Lanting’s notes on the pictures and often some cool bonuses like video of the geyser or stromatolites. In spite of my (and Gould’s) quibbles, it’s a first rate production!

As always, I, and I’m sure he, hope you will draw inspiration from the beauty of life to help protect it.

Discovered thanks to Carl Zimmer at The Loom.

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