When the asteroid hit

Through tracing the impact of the Chicxulub asteroid, Thomas Halliday offers a 550m-year tour of the incredible diversity of life that has existed on our planet
January 27, 2022
Otherlands: A World in the Making
Thomas Hailliday
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Like a 66m-year-old home movie, the first hours after the impact of the Chicxulub asteroid are recorded in precise detail at Hell Creek, North Dakota: the torn fish, broken tree trunks, and assorted teeth and bones smashed together by a seismic wave that rocked the planet.

Otherlands transforms that snapshot into a book-length narrative. Thomas Halliday offers a 550m-year tour of the incredible diversity of life that has existed on our planet. Giant penguins waddle across the shingle bay of subtropical Antarctica; a turkey-sized dinosaur, Caudipteryx, performs a courtship dance around a nest of cyan eggs.

Halliday’s trick is to tell his story in reverse. The first hominids exit early; the continents merge and drift and merge again; the sounds of the cretaceous forest fall silent as we pass beyond the evolution of birdsong. Life retreats from land to ocean, and the first eyes give way to the sightless world of the Ediacaran, an alien realm of crawling beings.

This reverse-telling mimics our present climate woes. Atmospheric carbon is at a three-million-year high and rising, and humans are now the world’s driving evolutionary force. Since 1978 the total vertebrate population has halved. But the technique also expands our empathy. I was reading Otherlands when I learned of the death of EO Wilson, who coined the term “biophilia” to describe our innate need to connect with other living things. Halliday shows how the most distant creatures have played a part in making our world. The epilogue winds forwards to today with a stark warning of the biodiversity crisis, tempered by the lesson of history: that “everywhere, always, life is built upon life.”