The Great Story Bead Project—A Timeline of Evolution from the Big Bang to Human Consciousness
I. Great Radiance phase (Use small transparent beads for spacers, see previous article on making Great Story Beads.)
– DEUTERIUM AND HELIUM NUCLEI PRODUCTION (1 minute after BB): protons and neutrons emerge and form the nuclei of simplest chemical elements: heavy hydrogen (deutrium), helium, and traces of lithium.
– RECOMBINATION / FIRST ATOMS (300,000 years after BB): Electrons combine with hydrogen and helium nuclei, producing the first neutral atoms.
II. Galactic phase (Use small gold beads for spacers.)
– 12 bya PROTOSTARS emerge (and some massive stars light up).
– 11 bya GALAXIES emerge.
– 11 bya STARS light up the galaxies.
– 11 bya-present GALAXIES INTERACT: some collide and are engulfed; others pass through one another, usually with tremendous gravitational impact to both.
– 10 bya-present SUPERNOVAS: COMPLEX ELEMENTS (atoms heavier than helium; i.e., carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, iron, gold, etc.) are forged in the fiery bellies of massive stars (at least 8 times more massive than our sun), which enrich the galaxies when the stars explode as supernovas.
– 5 bya the SUN ignites.
III. Hadean Eon of early Earth (Use small red beads for spacers.)
– 4.5 bya the MOON is carved out of Earth by a huge impact; its orbit around Earth gradually becomes more distant through time.
– 4.1 bya the Great Bombardment ends; RAIN falls upon a cooling Earth for first time.
– OCEANS form.
IV. Archaean Era of early life (Use small copper beads for spacers)
– 3.2 bya water-based PHOTOSYNTHESIS is invented by blue-green cyanobacteria to cope with a shortage of hydrogen atoms, previously scavenged from volcanic gases: H2 and hydrogen sulfide. The energy in sunlight is used to break apart water (H2O) molecules, thus opening up a virtually unlimited supply of hydrogen atoms. Biomass increases as a result.
– 2.8 bya marine iron rusts into RED BEDS from oxygen released during photosynthesis. When geology can no longer soak up oxygen, the OXYGEN CRISIS threatens microbial life, but it is also an opportunity because
(2) bacterial precursors of mitochondria evolve a way to use O2 for a high-energy-yielding form of RESPIRATION.
– NITROGEN FIXATION: Life copes with a nitrogen shortage by learning how to break the triple bond of nitrogen (N2) molecules that make up the bulk of the atmosphere, and to affix nitrogen atoms onto hydrogen atoms for fertilizer; biomass increases yet again.
– Closed-cycle metabolisms of GAIA are now fully in place. Life mediates crucial links in the biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, thereby maintaining an endless resupply of Earth’s finite reserves of elements vital for life.
V. Proterozoic Eon (Use small orange or yellow beads as spacers.)
– 1.5 bya MEIOTIC SEX emerges in eukarya, which is the first step in what will eventually evolve into a mode of reproduction that entails egg and sperm.
– 1.2 bya the geological activity of MARS freezes up, thus foreclosing full geophysical cycling of chemical elements that could be vital to life.
– 1 bya single-celled creatures invent PREDATION by developing flexible amoeba-like pseudopods that can surround a “prey” and secrete enzymes into that enclosed space (vacuole).
– 565-543 mya the GARDEN OF EDIACARA is the time when the first multicellular life forms in the sea evolve differentiated body forms. Multicellularity is an innovation in which the offspring of dividing cells stay in bonded association with one another, resulting in synergies of community. These synergies include (a) the ability of individual cells to specialize in different tasks, and (2) the presence of new pattern and structure at the group level that brings forth emergent properties (as in the possibilities of a fin or an eye). The first multicellular creatures are soft-bodied ediacarans, which may be neither animals nor algae but something unique. Thus the microcosm expands into a mesocosm, with fossils (some as long as 3 feet) that a human eye can easily see.
– EXTINCTION. All the ediacarans go extinct, possibly because of the evolution of hard parts by animal predators that ate the ediacarans. Predation intensifies and is now part of the mesocosm. The peaceable garden is ended.
VI. Paleozoic Era begins (Use small blue beads as spacers, with different hues of blue for each of the six geological periods within the Paleozoic).
– Intensification of life interactions as multicellular predators invent hard parts for teeth and drills and claws, prompting prey (mollusks, trilobites) to invent SHELLS for protection.
– SIGHT is invented, and is most sophisticated in the compound eyes of trilobite arthropods, the lenses of which are transparent crystals of calcite: Earth begins to see.
500-440 mya ORDOVICIAN
– CLAMS begin to burrow, presumably to escape predators.
– The first SEA URCHINS evolve.
– 440 mya END OF ORDOVICIAN EXTINCTION (a Class 2 extinction: 20% of families and up to 50% of species die out). All forms of planktonic graptolites go extinct, never to re-evolve. Many families of trilobites and brachiopods (clamlike creatures distinct from mollusks) go extinct.
440-410 mya SILURIAN
– EURYPTERIDS (giant sea scorpions) are top carnivores, in their glory; they are the biggest arthropods of all time.
– A freshwater green alga and aquatic fungi pool their talents (symbiosis), merging into the first LAND PLANTS. Life thus embarks on the adventure of weather and gravity. The continents grow green with low-lying mosses and liverworts (nonvascular plants that go dormant in dry conditions).
410-360 mya DEVONIAN
– Bivalve mollusks and SNAILS expand their range from the marine realm of their origin into freshwater habitats for the first time.
– VASCULAR PLANTS evolve: ferns, horsetails, lycopods (club mosses) – all still have living descendants. The vessels in vascular plants allow water to be moved upward against gravity, so plants can finally grow above the height of mosses; now they can more successfully release reproductive spores for wind dispersal. A water-retaining casing (cuticle), punctuated by stomate pores, allows vascular plants to retain water while exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen gases.
– TETRAPODS (“four-footed” vertebrates) originate, as the first amphibians come onto land.
– In the sea arise the distant ancestors of modern SHARKS; from now on, sharks tend to be the top carnivores of the sea.
– 367 mya LATE DEVONIAN EXTINCTION (Class 2). Many brachiopod, cephalopod (nautiloid), gastropod (snails), trilobite, tabulate coral, and fish groups die out. Interestingly, there is a huge difference in survival between animals that use silica in their bodies and those that use calcium carbonate: the reef-building carbonate sponges (stromatoporoids) suffer huge losses in diversity, but the siliceous sponges are unharmed. Single-cell foraminifera that build “shells” of silica all survive the extinction, but half of the kinds that protect themselves with calcareous shells go extinct.
360-290 mya CARBONIFEROUS
– Land plants discover that by retaining the cells of previous generations and reinforcing these with lignin (WOOD), they can rise to new heights. Trees are abundant, having evolved independently in several different lineages (lycopods, horsetails, tree ferns), as plants compete for sunlight by overtopping their neighbors. Horsetails obtain their glory in the genus Calamites, which can grow to a height of 60 feet. Propagating clonally by rhizomes, clonal forests of Calamites may have been the biggest “individual” life form that ever evolved on Earth.
– The kind of fungi that can decompose wood have not yet evolved, so massive coal fields result. The OXYGEN level in the atmosphere is much higher than today (owing to undecomposed coal?). This allows terrestrial arthropods to grow to the biggest sizes of all time, as a tracheid system of oxygen breathing (rather than a heart-pumped absorption of oxygen from lungs into the blood) prohibits large size in all arthropods forevermore. Carboniferous dragonflies had wingspans like that of modern-day seagulls. Millipedes grew to perhaps six feet long.
– Earth learns to fly, as insects evolve FLIGHT.
– Reptiles appear with the first land-worthy eggs that can survive out of water; this is the AMNIOTIC EGG, whose shell and membrane allow for gas exchange without water loss (like the cuticle and stomate innovation of vascular plants). Reptiles also invent the PENIS – but not yet a distinct vagina, as reptiles (and, later, birds) retain a cloaca that combines the 3 functions of reproduction, metabolic waste excretion, and fecal elimination. Reptiles are thus freed to copulate outside of water.
290-245 mya PERMIAN
– The vast landmass, with central sections far removed from marine moisture, produce deserts in the interior reaches of Pangaea, depositing RED (highly oxidized) sediments that contain FOSSILS. Many ferns gradually go exinct in the early Permian, as landscapes become more arid (ferns absolutely require a surface film of water for sexual reproduction.) Horsetails begin their decline – eventuating in modern times in just a single genus of “living fossil”: Equisetum, with just twenty species worldwide.
– 245 mya END OF PERMIAN EXTINCTION. This marks the end of the Paleozoic Era. This is the only Class 1 extinction Earth has ever endured. More than 50% of animal families go extinct, meaning that 95% of species can be inferred to have gone extinct. Nearly 75% of all amphibian and reptile families go extinct. One half of all marine families (80% of all genera in the sea) die out. All trilobites, blastoids (stalked echinoderms), eurypterids, stromatoporoids, and rugose and tabulate corals go entirely extinct, never to reappear. Dying out, as well, but not fully extinct are: 98% of all crinoid families, 78% of all articulate brachiopod families, 76% of bryozoan families, 71% of cephalopods, 50% of planktonic foraminfera. Recently discovered evidence indicates that the extinction was caused by an asteroid impact.
VII. Mesozoic Era (Age of Dinosaurs) begins. (Use small purple beads as spacers, with different hues of purple for each of the three geological periods.)
– 225 mya is a MINI MASS EXTINCTION (not one of the 5 majors)
– SHARK TEETH become abundant in the fossil record, because sharks evolve a dental strategy of replaceable teeth. Shark skeletons are still rarely preserved, however, as the skeletons are made of cartilage, not bone.
– 210 mya END OF TRIASSIC EXTINCTION (Class 2). This is the third time Earth has been hit hard by extinctions in 35 million years; biodiversity is severely stressed.
210-45 mya JURASSIC
– Proliferation of wind-dispersed POLLEN: land plants now almost entirely have long-distance sex without depending on water to disperse sperm, and have developed sophisticated “pollen tubes” to deliver sperm into moist tissues of the female ovule.
– GYMNOSPERMS – cycads, ginkgos, and ancient CONIFER TREES (such as redwoods, but not yet the pines) originate: all are seed plants that produce pollen. Great gymnosperm forests of the Mesozoic tower over the remnant lineages of lycopods and horsetails, which had once been the forests of the Paleozoic.
– DINOSAURS, which originated in the Triassic, become the largest land animals of all time, in the form of the great herbivorous sauropods (e.g. Brachiosaurus, Seismosaurus, Diplodocus), which reach their zenith in size and diversity during the Jurassic.
– LARGE MARINE REPTILES (the snake-necked plesiosaurs and dolphinlike ichthyosaurs) arise, as do the flying PTEROSAURS.
– The first BIRDS (Archaeopteryx) with feathers and teeth, originate.
145-65 mya CRETACEOUS
– This is a time of glorious increase in the complexity of life on both land and at sea. Marine PREDATION AND PROTECTION escalates in an evolutionary arms race: the shells of mollusks grow thicker and some develop spininess, while clams live in deeper burrows. SCALLOPS invent a fast, clapping form of movement, like swimming castanets.
– Earth is in a GREENHOUSE climate, with no polar ice.
– MORE DINOSAURS: T. rex, Triceratops, duckbills, and raptors are on land; plesiosaurs grow gigantic in the seas.
– The biggest flying life form of all time, the pterosaur QUETZALCOATLUS, spreads its wings over 45 feet (15 meters)!
– Earth bursts into SONG, with birds, insects, and crested dinosaurs making noises, largely as a means of sexual seduction.
– Flowering plants become important parts of the flora, but remain as low, herbaceous plants or vines, until the very late Cretaceous (70 mya) when the tree form evolves in several different lineages (magnolia family, sycamores). Earth adorns herself magnificently and invites the sky creatures into a mutualistic symbiosis with plants. FLOWERS AND INSECTS CO-EVOLVE in an attractive dance of pollination (flower nectar) and a protective dance of chemical warfare (invention of alkaloids and aromatic oils, as in basil, to repel insect herbivores).
– AMMONITES (cephalopods related to the chambered nautilus and squid) flourish, with their intricately joined segments of coiling shell, just before they go extinct.
– 65 mya – END OF CRETACEOUS EXTINCTION marks the K/T (Cretaceous/Tertiary) boundary: the end of the Mesozoic Era. It is a Class 2 extinction that brought an end to all dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, ammonites, and many lineages of foraminifera. (Plants, which could wait out the holocaust as seed or spore, generally did not suffer a mass extinction.) A buried crater 100 miles wide marks the spot where a mountain-size asteroid slammed into Earth at an estimated 50,000 miles per hour along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, releasing an amount of energy equivalent to 100 million megatons of TNT, which is 1000 times more powerful than all humanity1s currently existing nuclear weapons combined. The impact produced at least six tidal waves, some of which were more than 300 feet high, a magnitude 12 earthquake (which is a million times more powerful than a magnitude 6 earthquake), a deluge of sulfuric acid rain, and a huge cloud of dust that blocked the light from the Sun for months and contributed to the extinction of nearly every land animal whose adult form weighed more than 50 pounds. The impact also triggered a global firestorm that incinerated a quarter of the living biomass, releasing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that increased the average global temperature by 20 degrees Fahrenheit for a million years.
VIII. Cenozoic Era (Age of Mammals and Birds) begins. (Use small green beads as spacers, with different hues of green for the first 5 of the six epochs of the Cenozoic. Use pink and white beads for the final, Holocene, epoch.) The Cenozoic has only two geological “periods” _ the Tertiary and the Quaternary (or sometimes divided into the Paleogene and the Neogene) _ but it is more helpful to speak of the geological “epochs” within these periods. The Tertiary entails the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene epochs. The Quaternary includes just the Pleistocene and the Holocene epochs. For our purposes, we treat the Paleocene through the Pleistocene as hues of green. Even though humans originated in the Pleistocene, we did not become a dominant force on Earth until the Holocene. We use various shades of pink and white beads for the Holocene, to mark significant periods within the human realm.
– 61 mya – MAMMALS embark on a stunningly fast evolution. Within just four million years (65-61 mya) amazing new forms evolve to fill the empty ecological roles left by the dinosaurs. Hoofed mammals achieve glorious diversity, though they are still no larger than dog-size.
57-34 mya EOCENE
– DIATRYMA, the “terror crane” of North America, is a gigantic, eight foot tall, flightless bird with a nine-inch beak, who stalks prey upright, as T. rex did.
– HORSE, CAMEL, AND DOG families arise in North America.
– ELEPHANT, RHINO, AND PRIMATE families arise in the Old World.
– The first really big mammals evolve and rise up into the biggest land mammals of all time: the rhino-like Uintatheres and BRONTOTHERES of North America and the indricotheres of Asia (the largest of which weighed 20 tons and stood 18 feet tall at the shoulder).
– WHALE ancestors return to the sea.
– LATE EOCENE EXTINCTION. Many large types of mammals disappear, including all the uintatheres and brontotheres and indricotheres. Primates, once abundant and diverse in North America, disappear from this continent. Rodent-like multituberculates, which had originated in the Cretaceous, go globally extinct.
34-23 mya OLIGOCENE
– Many of our familiar FRUIT TREE FAMILIES originate (or, at least, this is when their first fossils show up).
– SQUIRRELS originate in North America and co-evolve with NUT TREES.
– The first MONKEYS appear in South America and diversify, presumably after having rafted in from Africa.
23-5 mya MIOCENE
– A catastrophic flow of COLUMBIAN FLOOD BASALT covers what is today eastern Washington in lava.
– The entire Miocene is the GOLDEN AGE OF MAMMALS, with an astounding diversity of mammalian species on land. Camels, still confined to North America, diversify into forms that resemble African gazelles and giraffes. Many kinds of peccaries fulfill the “pig” niche in North America.
– At the water’s edge, the bear family sends ancestors of SEALS back into the sea.
– The global climate warms, but it is still very dry, providing ideal conditions for modern GRASSES to flourish, as they can cope with drought and are superbly adapted to survive mammal grazing (because the growing cells of grasses are concealed at the base, not exposed at the tip). Some mammals co-evolve high-crowned teeth to withstand abrasion from silica granules embedded in grasses. Woody/grassy savannas spread throughout the world. (Grasses – wheat, barley, rice, maize, oats – will later support the emergence of agriculture.) – After 200 million years of stunning persistence, the whole taxonomic order of GINKGO (Ginkgoales) goes extinct in the western hemisphere, and nearly extinct in Asia. The dawn redwood (Metasequoia) goes extinct in North America too, hanging on in Japan until the Pleistocene. (In 1944, scientists will be thrilled to discover about 100 metasequoia trees still alive in Szechwan Province of China. As with ginkgo, humans will bring the lineage back to “life”: both trees now can be found in parks and gardens throughout the world.)
– The first elephants – MASTODONS – arrive in North America from the Old World.
– The PRONGHORN family (Antilocapridae) originates in North America (only one species remains today: the American pronghorn).
– CHEETAHS originate in North America. This is the only cat genus (Acinonyx) to ever originate in the Western Hemisphere, although there were catlike forms of the nimravid lineage much earlier in the Cenozoic. (Meanwhile, isolated South America had marsupial “cats” that evolved the same body forms and teeth as our placental true cats and as the nimravids.) The cat form is one of the stunning examples of “convergent evolution” during the Cenozoic.
– Only a narrow sea now separates North from South America, which had long been isolated by a vast expanse of water. WHIPTAIL LIZARDS are carried to North America from South America (probably on floating logs). TORTOISES (distinct from turtles) float from North America to South America.
5-1.8 mya PLIOCENE
– Pressed southward by advancing glacial ice, TULIP TREES (liriodendron) go extinct in Europe and western North America. A remnant population takes refuge in northern Florida and survives to repopulate eastern North America as the climate warms.
– The Colorado Plateau is rapidly uplifted, which produces the GRAND CANYON and the geological extravagances of Bryce and Zion parks.
– 3 mya the ISTHMUS OF PANAMA forms, joining the two continents for the first time since the Mesozoic. This prompts “THE GREAT AMERICAN INTERCHANGE,” an event that is a crisis for some lineages and an opportunity for others. Small ground sloths had swum across earlier, but now South America sends north its giant ground sloths, tanklike glyptodonts, porcupines, and armadillos (all of the taxonomic order Edentata, which originated in South America), plus marsupial opossums, and a ten-foot tall carnivorous bird: Titanis. In exchange, North America sends southward its foxes, deer, mice, skunks, rattlesnakes, rabbits, squirrels, tapirs, camels (llamas), cats, bears, weasels, and small mastodons (gomphotheres) – none of which South America had ever before experienced. The influx of northern animals honed by ecological interactions in the vast northern hemisphere proved too much for many South American endemic species, which go extinct. “Native” South American animals alive today are thus mostly less than three million years native.
– 2.5 mya HUMAN BEINGS (Homo habilis “handy human”) use stone tools.
– 1.4 mya
– POLAR BEARS evolve from the Asian grizzly bear in just 200,000 years.
– 50,000-500,000 years ago SYMBOLIC LANGUAGE emerges, marking the birth o f beliefs and metaphors for understanding the nature of Reality and our relationship to it in all its manifestations. This marks a radical shift. For 80-95% of human history we experienced life–we remembered, made choices, learned, pair-bonded, raised children, and were guided by instinct and non-verbal tradition, or culture–without any internal conversation going on in our heads. In other words, we lived and communicated as other animals do intuitively and experientially, making full use of our senses.
– 50,000 years