Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 05.26.05
Stanstead, Quebec


Musings from a budding evolutionary

I'm slowly wading through Bill Bryson's 2003 book *A Short History of Nearly Everything. The asterisk comes into play on the book jacket, nestled snuggly against a photo of our planet Earth above the author's name and the title in smaller print. The Earth is, apparently, the big seller here, the author the next-most-Earth-like, the title barely a consideration.

It may be the most provocative literary asterisk since that seventies classic Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask). Bryson takes a Trivial Pursuit approach to explaining everything from the distance between Earth and Pluto if the Earth was the size of a pea (a mile and a half) to the eccentricities of the scientists who actually figured all this stuff out (Louis Pasteur, for example, used to examine all his food with a magnifying glass in search of insidious microbes).

Bryson covers all this vast megascape of knowledge in such a jolly and coherent way that you come away with a pretty solid understanding of how it all works and a general sense of what a fluke it is we're here in the first place.

He explains, for example, that for two billion years or so (give or take a million) simple bacterial organisms were the only forms of life on our hostile acidic earth. Halfway along the way, a new bacteria began to feed off the hydrogen in the water and excrete oxygen. These bacteria were cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.

From those original cyanobacteria sprang the first ecosystem and, subsequently, the first single-celled organisms. They were simple structures, Bryson writes, "without any ambitions but to exist" - the Paris Hilton of cellular life. But they were alive nonetheless.

Hello! Cyanobacteria. That's the stuff that's been pestering local lake dwellers these past few summers.

Which leads me to a theory: Nature may be taking another crack at creating life.

This is not as unlikely as you might think.

As Bryson points out, our planet and life on it have changed drastically several times. Often these changes resulted from some sort of global cataclysmic event, and I'm not just talking about the release of another Die Hard movie.

I'm talking about events that have wiped out much of life on earth. And apparently we're due for another one, maybe (look out!) an asteroid collision. (By the way, if there was, in fact, an asteroid headed our way, we would notice it too late to do anything about it. Just so you know.)

Besides these major events, there's plain old evolution over billions of years. It really is just plain luck, for example, that we don't have fins instead of hands, which would make operating a cell phone a bit of a pickle.

So it is not entirely far-fetched to think that nature could try to weed us out. I'm not saying that nature is conscious, but we've certainly squandered our responsibility as stewards of the planet. Nature may merely be filling that vacuum.

Will cyanobacteria choke our lakes and streams and permanently alter surrounding ecosystems? Hard to say. But if so, mountaintop properties will become the new waterfront.

Will blue-green algae evolve into more complex forms of life, say something in a chic mauve? Will they develop speech? What about weapons? Singles bars for lonely bacteria? Will they develop facial hair? And will these be the bacteria that end up in the singles bars?

Will humans be wiped out or will we evolve to co-exist with these bacteria? Will we get together for barbecues? Will the bacteria-beings act outwardly friendly, all the while thinking to themselves, "Uh, you guys had your chance and you blew it."

These are important questions. I'll have the answers for you in about a million years. Give or take.