«Humans, we can easily disappear and be replaced by other forms of life»

The author Thomas Halliday at the headquarters of the Penguin Random House publishing house, in Madrid. / CR

Thomas Halliday | Paleontobiologist

The Scottish researcher publishes 'Other Worlds', a book in which he reconstructs 16 historical periods and reflects on the role of humanity in today's world

Elena Martin Lopez

There are stories that are capable of transporting us to other worlds. In the case of Thomas Halliday that phrase is literal. At 33 years old, this multi-awarded and renowned Scottish paleobiologist and researcher, associated with the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom), has written a book that is postulated as one of the best scientific volumes of the year: 'Other worlds. Journey through the extinct ecosystems of the Earth' (Debate).

In it, he recreates in detail 16 historical periods that have disappeared, from the Pleistocene, 20,000 years ago, to the distant Ediacaran, 550 million years ago, and brings back to life ancient creatures as amazing as the familiar dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, or the lesser known giant penguins, three meter high mushrooms, glass reefs or feathered reptiles. All of them framed in environments with moving continents, extreme temperatures, meteorite impacts, global ice ages, superstorms and volcanic eruptions on a continental scale. That is, changing ecosystems that alternate destruction and life.

Those very detailed and vivid images that Halliday reconstructs from the past have only been possible thanks to the scientific advances of the last decades. “Recreating the worlds in which fossils were deposited, and in which the organisms that created them lived, is a challenge that paleontologists have tried to answer since the 18th century. When I was little, the dinosaurs in books appeared colored according to how the artist saw fit, but now we know the real colors they had, and we have even been able to find out the sound that prehistoric crickets made or what diseases some animals and plants suffered from. The entire book is based on that scientific evidence, and when there is something for which there is no proven data, I avoid talking about it rather than speculate. In reality, the really difficult part was synthesizing all that information to put together a story that made sense”, says Halliday, who has dedicated the last three years of his life to this project.

Animals from different prehistoric periods: woolly mammoth, bunostegos and dinosaur. / Archive

'Otros mundos', on the other hand, is not only a look at the past but also an invitation to reflect on the present and a small window into the future. If we compare our world with that of the late Permian, we find worrying similarities such as the loss of oxygen from the oceans; while global warming brings us ever closer to Earth's greenhouse periods, such as the Eocene. What all these historical periods share is that they disappeared. Are we also destined for extinction?

Halliday replies: “We know that when the climate changes you can lose entire worlds and life forms. That should make us aware that humans are not intrinsic to life on Earth. We are an important part of it at the present time, but we can easily disappear and be replaced by other forms of life, as has been happening for centuries with other species. That should really motivate us to preserve the climate and protect the ecosystem that we have, because although life is consistent, ecosystems are very fragile, and it is crazy to think that we will not be affected by the changes that we are imposing on the world. It is a decision we have to make every day. We can choose to destroy everything, and I hope we don't, but we also have enough knowledge and technology to slow down and minimize the damage. We often say that we have 10 years left to solve climate change, but those kinds of deadlines don't work. We have already changed and lost much. The longer we wait, the worse it will be."

De-extinction is not the solution

Change is inevitable and thanks to it we are here. If a meteorite had not extinguished the non-avian dinosaurs, the diversification of mammals, including humans, would not have occurred, but "humanity is part of the world as it is right now, if that changes there may be no place for us » warns Halliday.

Despite everything, there is still hope. In fact, we have already seen some examples of how life adapts to the new realities that are emerging. For example, fungi and bacteria have been discovered that have evolved to be able to digest plastic waste, the problem of overpopulation is limiting itself with the drop in birth rates, and we have even had to live through a pandemic that many have considered the pause that the Earth imposed on us to try to “heal itself”. "Nature is pure inventiveness," the author maintains, "but that does not imply that the planet can infinitely sustain the wasteful lifestyle now enjoyed by economically developed nations."

Image of the cover of the book 'Otros Mundos'.

It is in some of these nations that, at the same time, efforts are dedicated to the extinction of species. One example is the proposal by the US biotech company Colossal, which intends to use CRISP genetic engineering to 'resurrect' the woolly mammoth. Halliday disagrees. "Even if it were technologically possible to bring these animals back, it would be to an environment totally unknown to them where they wouldn't know how to function, which seems to me to be a terrible idea in ethical terms. Your time on Earth is over. I think we should try to preserve the ecosystems that currently exist, which are just as incredible and fantastic, rather than revive those of the past.”

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