History of Earth in a Nutshell

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When most people think about history, they tend to be far too near-sighted and fail to realize the big picture. To put things in perspective, I’ll try to sum up all we know about history by starting from the beginning.

It started with a Big Bang. 13.8 billion years ago, all matter in the universe was in a compressed state the size of a pinhead. The density threshold became so unstable that all the matter within exploded outward in all directions—infinitely.

The force of gravity caused some of this matter to collect into galaxies—trillions of them. Within each galaxy are hundreds of billions of solar systems, or giant stars with planets and moons orbiting them. One such star was our sun, and one such planet orbiting it was Earth.

Due to the particular conditions of Earth, relating to its size, orbit, rotation, force of gravity, and position in the solar system, liquid water and an oxygen-rich atmosphere developed. This enabled the first seeds of life to sprout.

Deep within Earth’s oceans, in the hydrothermal vents, simple life first appeared in the form of single-celled organisms. This was the only life that existed on Earth for about three billion years until DNA emerged, a molecule storing genetic information with the capability to self-replicate with random mutations. These mutations are what jump-started the process of the evolution of life.

When an organism reproduces with random genetic mutations, unexpected traits arise in the offspring. Over time (millions upon millions of years) these mutations result in more and more complex organisms, as traits are naturally selected for by evolution. If the genetic mutation is beneficial and results in the organism surviving long enough to reproduce, then that gene was useful and worth passing on. If not, the gene (and organism) goes extinct.

After thousands of generations of reproduction with random mutations, the resulting organism becomes so different that it can no longer be called the same species. This is how the original single-celled bacteria turns into squid, fish, frogs, lizards, birds, and mammals.

For about 200 million years, the reptiles were the peak of evolution on the planet Earth. Large carnivorous dinosaurs were so successful at killing their competition that mammals could not survive to evolve past anything bigger than a shrew.

Then, 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid struck Earth, instantly killing much of the life on the planet. A nuclear winter and ice age followed, which killed off most other dinosaurs because the cold-blooded creatures could only survive in a warm climate. However, warm-blooded creatures, like the tiny shrew-like mammals, could survive in these conditions. With the dinosaurs out of the picture, there were no massive predators trying to kill the mammals, so they were able to evolve into larger creatures with bigger brains and more complexity, such as wolves, tigers, bears, and apes.

The apes were not as fierce predators as the tigers, wolves, or bears, but they made up for that with their intelligence and ability to work together in large groups. One group of apes somehow learned to balance on two feet, which proved to be a survival advantage, so that trait was passed on and developed until a new species of bipedal apes evolved (Homo Erectus.)

An enormous advantage of being bipedal was that the hominids had two free hands to use for other purposes, such as manipulating objects like sticks and stones. Over time, hominids developed opposable thumbs which allowed them to better manipulate objects and materials into tools and weapons, ultimately enabling them to invent fire.

The invention of fire was a massive turning point in the history of Earth. This allowed hominids to cook their food, which killed certain bacteria, resulting in larger brain sizes, and a new species was born: Homo Sapiens. However, with a large brain, sapiens’ skulls became so big that they couldn’t fit through the mother’s birth canal when fully developed, so they had to be born premature.

Being born premature presents a major problem. An infant child is helpless. It cannot do anything on its own. So sapiens had to develop strong feelings of love between mother and child so that the mother would care for the infant. The mother could not go out hunting or fighting off predators while she was caring for the child, so it was necessary for the father to develop strong attachment toward his mate and offspring, as well. He protected and provided for them. This is how humans developed feelings of familial love.

Next, these feelings of love expanded, as sapiens started to form tribes of numerous families working together to improve the collective’s chance at survival. A key to being able to cooperate in large groups is communication. Humans developed speech, starting small, but it built over time into complex language. In conjunction with love for one’s own tribe came hate for opposing tribes. Hate was a survival advantage because it allowed one tribe to out-compete opposing tribes.

At some point humans became conscious, gaining self-awareness. This may have been a result of language combined with memory, perception of time, and the ability to imagine the future. With consciousness, humans realized that planting a seed today will result in an edible crop growing months later—AKA the birth of agriculture.

Agriculture allowed for specialization among the species. Rather than every human being having to hunt and gather food for themselves, a select few could farm crops to feed the masses, allowing them to do other things such as become blacksmiths, artists, storytellers, athletes, priests, scientists, scholars, philosophers, merchants, bankers, lawyers, and more. Agriculture gave birth to civilization. Civilization allowed certain people to focus their time, energy, and attention on improving technology, which in turn further expanded civilization.

For a technological civilization to develop, the human species first needed language and consciousness. Through language they shared their knowledge and passed it down across generations, building better and better technology. Consciousness gave humans imagination and the ability to create stories. They wondered things like “who are we?” and “where did we come from?”

Imagination allowed humans to create things like religion, art, culture, government, and money—all things that don’t naturally exist in the wild, they are created in human imaginations then implemented into society. Over time, society and culture evolved, just as biology did, until civilization created empires like ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Most people are familiar with what happened since then: Christianity, Islam, Medieval Europe, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Those last two were key in igniting the growth of technological innovation, resulting in trains, automobiles, airplanes, nuclear weapons, computers, the internet, artificial intelligence, and the world we recognize today.

That is the history of Earth in a nutshell.

If you think I skipped through too much history too quickly towards the end, that’s because the history of human civilization is a drop in the ocean compared to the history of the human species, which itself is a drop in the ocean compared to the history of life on Earth, which itself is less than a drop in the ocean of the history of the universe. If the history of Earth was a two-hour movie, all of human history would be less than one second.

Humans are minuscule in the grand scheme of the universe, but at the same time, humans are extraordinary because we somehow gained consciousness, or the ability to contemplate our existence and place in the universe. To understand our history and imagine our future. To crack open the nutshell of the universe.

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