The connection between rocks, planets, and people

First aired on Quirks & Quarks (9/2/13)


What's our place in the universe? That's a question mankind has been trying to figure out for millennia. Now, it's one that American palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Dr. Neil Shubin explores in his new book, The Universe Within: Discovering The Common History of Rocks, Planets and People.

"The more we look, the more we find that we're not the centre of the universe, but we're deeply connected to everything. We come from the same material everything else comes from," he says in an interview with Bob McDonald on Quirks & Quarks.

Shubin says our existence is owed to the string of events following the Big Bang and everything on Earth -- time, gravity and even our size -- has a greater connection to the cosmos.

Scientists tend to group studies into 'ologies': geology, biology, cosmology. But Shubin believes bigger questions involve interdisciplinary thinking and tools.

"We see some evolutionarily transitions are not just esoteric in the evolution of life, they're embedded in our own anatomy."

Studying connections between anatomy and geology is important because to we see how we fit into the tree of life. He says understanding history helps us see the way creatures like worms and microbes live today.

"Our planet and species won't be here forever, but our atoms will be in other worlds. That's just a stunning thought of the deepest connections we share."

No living thing was bigger than a grain of rice in the first three billion years on Earth. Shubin says cells bonded to create a new kind of individual. Fossil records indicate our bodies' origin broadly correlate in time to an oxygen level rise several billion years ago in the rocks of the earth.

How did that happen? Algae as the source of oxygen. The oxygen levels increased and changed the metabolic landscape and breathed life into the body.

Something that distinguishes humans from our closest primate relatives is our ability to differentiate colours on the red-green colour scale. That's why some monkeys can't detect ripe leaves or fruit in leafy environments. Shubin says the origin of colour vision likely happened from a duplication of genes from our primate ancestors about 45 million years ago when there was botanic and climate change on Earth.

Shubin says each step of the chain of logic makes total sense. It's a robust hypothesis well supported by data.

"It's like a Rube Goldberg device, this contraption with lots of bells and whistles on it. When you break it down to its constituent parts, it makes total sense and when you look at the end points, it seems utterly absurd, and that's the perfect vehicle to write a book." Although we are recent denizens of the planet, humans have extraordinary planetary impact and the ways we share information are game changers.

"It's awesome responsibility. It's kind of scary. It's powerful and awesome. But it really does carry implications of proper stewardship for the planet. We are a cusp of a new age in many ways. That's why as we go forward and disconnect ourselves from our planetary past, which we're doing, we're setting up a law of unintended consequences. We're setting up ourselves for new kinds of problems."

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