The first twist for me was an opportunity to write a book about scientific discoveries that were made by chance or error. I had to work really hard to write that book because I had no background in science. I was a literature major with a minor in creative writing. The year I worked on that book was grueling. I had a full-time job but spent weekends in the New York Public Library doing research for the book. I did get a book, Discovery By Chance, written, and after it was published, other science writing jobs on television documentaries came my way. To write one of those films, which was about tropical rainforests, I traveled to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to do research. Being in the rainforest and meeting a bunch of field biologists hooked me on science, especially evolutionary biology, the science that deals with life on Earth, who we are, and how we evolved.
I don’t know anything more fascinating than the fact that life evolved on this fortunate planet, and that of all the directions life could have taken, creatures like us evolved. Chance figured in our evolution as well. We wouldn’t be here had it not been for a cataclysmic accident that wiped out the dinosaurs. Some 65 million years ago, an enormous asteroid (6 miles across) hit the Earth, sending up dense dust clouds that blocked the sun’s rays and darkened the skies. Without sunlight, plants couldn’t carry out photosynthesis and manufacture food that is the base of all food chains. Without their plant food, the vegetarian dinosaurs and many other species died of starvation along with the carnivorous beasts like T. Rex that fed on them. Without the sun’s warmth, the Earth also experienced cold winter conditions. Scientists think the fallout from this asteroid killed up to 70 percent of all plants and animals on Earth at that time – a mass extinction.
It was a fortunate extinction for us, because living in the shadow of the gigantic beasts was a small shrew-like insect-eating mammal that may be the ancestor of modern placental mammals. A specimen 160 million years old has been found. Over time, following the extinction of the dinosaurs, numerous mammals evolved, including primates and the great apes that are our ancestors.
I find it exciting to learn what we share in common with our closest primate relatives – the chimpanzees – and how we differ. Our modern human species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago -- only a flicker of evolutionary time. DNA analysis shows that all of us who are alive today are descended from those early humans who lived in Africa. At the deepest level of our cells, our genetic blueprint, we are all African. What is more profound or exciting than that?
I write about nature and science because they form our knowledge base, provide evidence for what we know, and point toward solutions if our leaders are wise enough to embrace evidence. Sadly, today too many people in positions of power deny science and embrace superstition. I write science because I cherish life and hope in some small way to contribute to the education needed so desperately to protect our planet and save humanity from its self-destructive ways. Think of this: Dinosaurs ruled the Earth some 135 million years; our species hasn’t been around even a quarter of a million years. We are babies, and some of our grown-ups act like toddlers having tantrums. At the current rate of willful destruction of the planet’s resources, we won’t need an asteroid to wipe us out. We’re doing it to ourselves.
Is there hope? I like to think so. We’re a resilient, hardy species with huge brainpower. If we use our intelligence, creativity, compassion and ability to cooperate with each other and solve problems, we could protect our home planet and improve the quality of life for everyone. But it's a big IF.