Nature Strange and Beautiful: How Living Beings Evolved and Made the Earth a Home

nature strange and beautiful

Egbert Giles Leigh Jr and Christian Ziegler
Yale University Press, £21.50

Nature Strange and Beautiful takes us on a journey through evolution, from the origins of life to the great mystery of consciousness.

Almost four billion years ago thermal vents formed where alkaline and hydrogen-rich water emerged to meet acidic ocean water that was rich in carbon dioxide. This thermodynamic disequilibrium could have provided energy for the first stages in the evolution of life, and Leigh and Ziegler lay out the steps needed for complex life to form there. While evidence is building to support these ideas, we lack a convincing account of exactly how physical and chemical processes turned lifeless matter into living beings. The authors therefore include it on their list of the frontiers of our ignorance.

From life’s single-celled beginnings a vast array of diverse organisms has evolved. By modifying their surroundings, making them more hospitable to life, living beings have transformed the planet as well.

Nature Strange and Beautiful particularly focuses on co-operation and competition – how interactions between species have given rise to diverse communities and landscapes. Animal pollination, for example, enables tree species to persist at low densities, leading to a more diverse forest. Pest pressure can likewise drive diversity. As living organisms diversified and developed ever more complex communities, each individual relied on the activities of many other species in order to live and reproduce.

Overall, the book is a thorough and fascinating exploration of how natural selection has created our conscious minds and the natural world around us. As you would expect for a book that is co-written by a nature photographer, there are some stunning photos. It is also beautifully illustrated with pencil drawings that give an insight into both ancient and modern life.

Dr Rebecca Nesbit