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The Great Dying and the great creation

Calm down – this is not about suicide. Jeez! Recently I came across by accident the BBC iPLAYER Series ‘Earth’.

The first episode starts off with events of the Permian Period – the Great Dying – 300 to 252 million years ago.  This was news to me! How?

Early towards new knowledge

When I was a kid (9 to 15 y.o.) no books I read mentioned it. I read on theories about formation of the universe and the Earth. I read about Darwin’s theories of evolution. Dinosaurs and stuff were one of my fav topics. I grew up thinking that dinosaurs were the main weird creatures to roam the earth. Now I discover other weird creatures that roamed the earth before the dinosaurs. They were not called ‘dinosaurs’.

ChatGPT assistance

So I got thinking when did all this stuff about the Permian period emerge? How did I miss it? I used ChatGPT to assist my searches. It came up with, “While it’s clear that our understanding of the Great Dying has developed significantly over the past few decades, the exact year or decade when it was first recognized is not specified in the available sources. It’s likely that awareness and understanding of this event have gradually increased over time as more research has been conducted and more evidence has been discovered.

But I did not give up there. I told it, “One way to estimate when it was recognised, is perhaps to see how numbers of publications on the subject rose over the years. See if there is data on that.” It came back only with a small handful of articles between 1995 and 2003, and informed me, “The Great Dying was being studied and recognized in the scientific community at least as early as the 1990s, and possibly earlier. However, it’s important to note that the recognition of the event among the general public may have lagged behind its recognition in the scientific community.”


Well that was good enough for me because I kept up my interest in the evolution of species on earth into the 1986 and heard nor read anything about ‘The Great Dying’ up to that time. Yes I could have missed some article or the other – recalling that back then we only had paper based books and no internet.

So I reckon that between 1980 and 2003, that’s when recognition of what happened in the Permian period started to emerge. It would have taken decades for the findings from research to be crystallised into a body of organised knowledge.

See important article from 1995: Diversification and Extinction in the History of Life

Recognition of the importance of the Permian period is in this article: Recovery from the most profound mass extinction of all time (Proc Biol Sci. 2008 Apr 7; 275(1636): 759–765.)

The end of the Permian period was 252 million years ago. The dinosaurs would have to wait another 20 to 30 MILLION years to get going!! But they peaked in population between 145 to 66 million years ago. Then they were being wiped out my the after effects of a massive asteroid impact that caused global climatic changes. That was the last and fifth mass extinction event in Earth’s history.

What does it mean?

You’d have to watch the whole of the BBC iPLAYER Series ‘Earth’ to understand.

The Great Dying was the most profound extinction of life on Earth. Life would have been decimated five times, to give the human race a chance to emerge (evolve if you wish).

The forces involved were tremendous in all the extinctions and included asteroid impacts. The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs is but one of several. One major asteroid impact long before the dinosaurs is taken as responsible for fracturing the earth to allow formation of tectonic plates below Pangea (the primordial single continent).

Life was a victim of its own success. Huge forests sucked carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere leading to ice ages, only to be busted by Earth’s volcanic activity which then changed things in favour of life. Asteroid impacts destroyed and helped life. Millions of species would have been wiped out in the battles, and millions created. But by far, there was way more loss of life, for life as we know it today to emerge.

Human evolution

The first species in the human lineage, often grouped under the term “hominins”, appeared around 5-7 million years ago. These early hominins, such as Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Ardipithecus ramidus, were more similar to other primates than to modern humans, but they had some features, such as bipedalism, that distinguished them from other primates.

The genus Homo, which includes modern humans and our closest extinct relatives, first appeared around 2-2.5 million years ago. The first species in this genus, Homo habilis, showed significant advancements such as the use of stone tools.

Homo erectus, which appeared around 1.9 million years ago, was the first hominin species to leave Africa and spread throughout parts of Europe and Asia. Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, first appeared around 300,000 to 200,000 years ago in Africa. The “Out of Africa” migration, in which Homo sapiens began to spread across the globe, occurred around 70,000-60,000 years ago. What that means is that ‘we’ are very new. We have to thank the Earth for all its mass extinctions, else we most probably would not have emerged.

Theories about alien species guiding our evolution from 2 to 3 billion years ago are blown out of the ‘water’. Those aliens could not possibly have planned all the major accidents that would happen, for a design on humans emerging. It’s computationally impossible for them to know that slamming a 30 mile wide rock into Earth, hundreds of millions of years ago, would lead to us. If an alien species did arrive to guide, then reasonably it would have happened – more likely – in the last 200, 000 years.

We may be alone

Leaving aside theories of alien influence for the moment, it is clear that ‘we’ are the end point a very long and troubled journey in Earth’s history. Extensive searches of the heavens over the last 50 years have not discovered ‘radio’ signals that suggest there is technologically advanced life like us out there. If life like us was abundant out there we would have picked up signals travelling for millions of years through the cosmos. It’s quiet out there.

That could mean that we are the first – and hence very alone. If that is true, it means that mother Earth was blessed by a series of accidents and battles, to create something very novel – us! But the history of all the Earth’s battles tells us that the planet does not really care about life. It would give it and take it away, like nothing. Assuming that we are a special creation in the universe, we have to huge responsibility to mind our own species very carefully. We ought not to self-destruct, as a result of some fundamental or primordial stupidity.

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