Time in My Life

Introduction – 20 2 20

For the last sixty years I have been interested in how animals and plants responded to the continually changing climate and environment through deep time. My own mainstream discipline has been Palaeontology but this developed into what is now called Evolutionary Biology, the overlap from bits of Geology, Biology, Geography, Genetics and other fields. When you take them together they touch on the much older conundrums of what life is, how it began and what it’s for. I’ve grown to be more interested in the history of human perspectives on these processes. If we look back at the shape and changes of our culture over the last few hundred years, do we see comparable patterns to any from geological time? How did people interpret nature in their place and time? Are there hidden trends in those thoughts, habits and reactions? Might there be clues to help us understand what we think we can see now from within our fast life-styles?  And some of the answers may even help with Thomas Huxley’s old dilemma of whether the cosmos has a pathway to morality.

Bearing such breadth in mind I have reflected on some of my own life experiences, and compared them to events from recent and geological history.  So each chapter begins with such memories I have from different places and I compare them to bigger events in the local political history and then to parts of the geological history of that same region. Unexpectedly, these comparisons show many common patterns. Pictures emerge of how environments, and our understanding of them, have changed during our own lifetimes, caused by crises and peaceful pleasures through our own lives. But there are trends in the stability, catastrophe and progression at each place, and I compare these reactions despite the very different time scales involved.

Scientists know a lot about how changes in the environment cause reactions in its biology through the millions of years of geological time. Here, I want to set some of these beside events in local history over just a few hundred years. And then, some of them remind me of happenings in my own life through more than 70 years, and I wonder if these matches are universal. It’s a shock for present-day scientists to be reminded how little was known about the earlier Earth back in the early 1950s. That was when my own generation was still at school, with much less knowledge and more limited ways of learning. Now, we take for granted that the planet is 4.5 billion years old, that its continents move around as changing tectonic plates, and that evolution has been stimulated by five or six catastrophic episodes, so-called mass-extinction events. We know a whole lot more about the universal building bricks that form cell biology

Many old scores are now at peace, though some were never finally settled, waiting for new opportunities to develop further. For example, more and more Church leaders accept the common scientific view of Nature. Over the last fifty years creative elements of the Arts and Sciences have shown patterns that have much in common and the participants have learnt to be mutually respectful. But dark clouds are hovering over many of these developments. There is a growing opinion that science moves so quickly in comparison to economic growth that society cannot keep up. This leads some young people to tweet that everything is possible but nothing is true. We are going pop.

I want to identify some of the most common of these patterns and compare them from my three different scales of time: geological, historical and personal. They all show quiet intervals separated by catastrophes or rapid events, most of which were not predicted to happen. The duration and intensity of these changes in both physical and biological systems vary from gradual to sudden relative to each scale of time.

Many whole systems or disciplines can be involved, inviting us to consider the energy available within the contained matter. That energy has flowed from one part of biodiversity, and its environment, to another. There is a link between these multidisciplinary systems, showing up as self-organisation. They move from states of high order to a more chaotic state. Carried by time’s arrow, they are expressed by physicists as the Second Law of Thermodynamics: through time, order changes to chaos. That is, entropy increases.

The common-place experiences in all our lives are sensing these physical processes. Reacting to these changes, we also know that the work, or driving force, for evolution by natural selection comes from the sun through photosynthesis, increasing order in the biological system.

The Second Law recognises that time travels only in one direction. It directs a release from order to a state of higher chaos so that within the whole Earth system entropy is increasing. The change is from order and low entropy to chaos and high entropy, such as by spilling a bottle of ink, animals fighting one another, etc. There is order in quiet Nature, chaos in war and change. Evolution is the adaptation to new environments and promotes change to the order of a system, from a state of lower entropy to higher. In biological systems, photosynthesis takes solar energy for growth, increasing order and reducing entropy. As the organisms live, they increase entropy.

For me as a schoolboy, reading around these topics in the City Library opened up the same questions about other places further inland in Europe, and back into deeper times. Of course, the further back in time I looked the more uncertainty there was about events and the related processes. I remember reading that, in 1953, an American chemist called Clair Paterson used evidence from the radiometric decay of several elements to show that the Earth is 4,500 million years old. It came in the same year as publication of Watson and Crick’s well-known paper about the structure of DNA, quickly followed by a theory of how enzymes and other proteins are synthesized in the cell.

In English tradition, Charles Darwin and his followers were convinced that much of evolution was gradual. They expected influences from many factors and for many different mechanisms to respond, realizing that it would take many decades of research to discover the principal causes. Darwin’s publicist Thomas Huxley talked and wrote a lot about the vast canvas of what we now call biodiversity, organic life and the physical environment. Arthur Tansley, the South African politician and ecologist Jan Smuts, and Julian Huxley, led with that multidisciplinary view in the early twentieth century. Tansley described whole ecosystems and Smuts coined the word holism for the interdisciplinary perspective. Mor recently, the same views have been influential in architecture through the work of Charles Jencks.  

There have been comparable arguments between two other groups of thinkers in evolutionary biology, those reducing the explanations to a single process or equation, and others expecting much wider causes to be necessary for us to account for all the variation. The first group was led by Bertrand Russell, then Bill Hamilton and Richard Dawkins.   

Other wars about evolution have been fought by Steve Gould who rediscovered theories of how catastrophes, Goldschmidt’s hopeful monsters, might stimulate whole ecosystems. Their theory of Punctuated Equilibria was populised at the same time that plate tectonics came to be understood as a major factor in mapping global ecological processes.

Now there are theories of chaos and self-organised systems.

At the beginning of our careers my generation understood surprisingly little about our geological and personal history. Now we take many of the incidents for granted and they continue to help explain familiar and other new scenes and events. For example, patterns emerge as the continental plates drift in response to convection from below. Human groups also grow and move. In particular they react and develop in response to catastophes. These may be incidents in geological history, episodes in human history and most often the much slighter events in an individual’s life. Though these sets of events have very different detail, cause, effect and time-scale, they do seem to share familiar patterns and consequences.

Another important breakthrough in understanding the Earth came in the 1960s, realizing that something crucial was missing from what was known about the Earth, and that made it much easier to understand more about the earth’s history. Although Alfred Wegener’s earlier theory of Continental Drift had little support from the broader scientific community, it did have support from the brave maverick Arthur Holmes. The model was for a single supercontinent to break into two, Pangea in the north and Gondwanaland in the south. The break was thought to have begun around the time that dinosaurs first appeared. In turn, both Pangea and Gondwanaland were thought to have broken up and most of the planet’s oceans were to get bigger. Meanwhile, the locations and climates of the land masses were to change significantly and the new environments for many living organisms were to influence evolution.  

Each of the next six chapters concerns a topic that has occupied successive parts of my life, showing up through these three time-scales. Do they show similar features of cause and effect? A reductionist would have very precise descriptions and interpretations for each of them, especially between the three time-scales of each. Instead, I challenge the relationships of all three with scepticism, and suspicion of reason. Similarly, arguments that are based entirely on objective or subjective evidence lead to limited understanding.

Bradgate   Charnia     ice earth

Brassington  Sequoia   sink hole collapse

Prague      lignite      volcano eruptions

North Sea       oil exploration   turbidites

North Atlantic    Atlantis      Igneous Province

Andros           metamorphism    subduction boundary

Chapter 1 Early Life

My father was born in 1898, the youngest of five brothers and one sister. As was the way with all those he knew, he left school at thirteen and went to work in a local factory. Wigston was then a small town a few miles south of Leicester with a mix of agriculture, smallholdings and small factories, mostly making hosiery and other knitwear. These small industries had developed in the 1700s helped by transportation on the Grand Union Canal and then a hundred years later by the still familiar London Midland Railway. The life was prosperous but hard with local country routine and strong collective influences at the village pub and the church. The history of the region over the last thousand years was told in 2010 by Michael Wood: The Story of England.

When young men were not wanted by armies, and when they were not victims of plague or famine, they carried on with their working regime on the fields and then in the factories. A major landlord of that part of the county was Merton College Oxford and they oversaw that level economic way of life, protecting the interests of the squires and the workers as well as their own.   

As a soldier at the front in the First World War my father was shot in the leg and lay dying in a bomb crater. Forty years later he told me that a German soldier had helped him while he lay and gave him a drink of water. He felt that this saved his life. Slowly over the next decade he was cared-for back to some kind of independent life, Stoke Mandeville hospital and intervening jobs in the small factories in Wigston.

My mother’s life matched this same dreary rhythm of work in factories and wars, the first controlled by her conventional father and the second by other men of battle-weary Britain. These temporary labours kept her and millions like her going in a steady way so that the factory and the battleground were seen as centres of importance and high drama. Such jobs were prized by the proud employees, helping to drive the Empire and the world. When she was fourteen my mother was not allowed to stay on at school, and the factory work came second to national duties of the wars. The only special consideration was after her father’s death when, like the some millions of others, she was expected to stay at home to be with her own mother for company.    

Such is the power of close relatives, due to something programmed into their behavior as individuals and as a group. Of course, they do have similar DNA, and the more order is built into its similarity the more importance there is for the laws of physics. The structure of the nucleic acids bestow an ability for them to store information and pass it on to control biochemical processes. That process demands energy, provided directly or indirectly from photosynthesis and the sun, and the resulting work that is done maintains structure and order within the biological system. We will see how this becomes important in maintaining life on our planet, and in changing it by evolution.

As well as photosynthesis, another fundamental process for biological systems is sex, the way by which the ability of the same complex molecules of nucleic acid change, to be refreshed and strengthened. Sexual reproduction adds complexity as the nucleic acids are duplicated and as the male and female constituents become recombined. It is another progression from simple to complex, as in other aspects of evolution. Life needs energy from work, maintaining order. But we will see that this slips from the structures as the battle between the living things and the vast environment continues relentlessly.

Although it was another very different kind of war, the same processes of order changing to chaos, or randomness, was taking place when I was born, half way through the Second World War. Then, my father looked after the spare parts at a Spitfire aircraft factory. It was just another routine in darkness up against the same unreal enemy.

For both my parents the only brightness during these dismal years was their meeting one another, their marriage and my birth, all within less than a couple of years. By the standards of simple cautious folk, it was pretty good going. My mother had many women friends whose men had died in the wars. They were the spinsters of legendary tales of 1920s gaiety, weekends at the seaside and abortions in the backstreets. There were also the thousands of gloomy draped drawing rooms with the lonely ordinary women living alone as their old parents died. I knew them as my Aunties, and I had several – there was Agnes and Gwen, Maud and Ethel, and others whose names I don’t remember.

Agnes lived in the house where she was born sixty years before, a red-brick terrace with two bedrooms, an outside lavatory and a back-entry. She, her three brothers and parents had squashed together until brothers and parents had died in the war or through bad health and old age. Their lives followed a plan followed by millions of other families in similar streets: so often an unmarried daughter stayed on to look after the last surviving parent. It was the story of a soldiers’ song: ‘Hug me, kiss me, call me Gertie,/ Marry me quick, I’m nearly thirty.’

Agnes’s father had worked at the same knitwear factory, called Rusell’s, where she began work as a packer at the age of fifteen, and was then paid fifteen shillings a week for folding knitted cardigans and putting them in boxes. In this she took comfort from being like many of the other girls in the neighbouring streets and was expected to give most of her wages to her parents for her board and lodging at home. Many years earlier, her father had joined the factory club to mortgage his purchase of the family home that his employer had built nearby in the 1870s for workers like him. It was a popular system that stabilised the factory labour- force, and the purchase made it easy for Agnes to stay on when the others had died. But as well as that comfort there was frustration and fear of becoming embittered, narrow and prudish. From then on into old-age she knew there was no promise to be loved or to love.

Agnes stayed on at Russell’s for her whole working life and had always started work to the factory hooter at eight o’clock. Through all those years she had envied the town’s shop girls who started at nine, and more recently a few others who had been to secretarial college and learnt shorthand and typing. Whenever she had tried to leave she was up against younger women with the latest qualifications who accepted lower starting wages. The usual escape from this constant round was marriage. The hard reality was that there were more women than jobs and they became common fictional characters in novels of those times. They haunt the pages of EM Forster, Henry James and Trollope. We know Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, HG Wells’ Ann Veronica and Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism. They knit, drink cocoa and enjoy the constant routine of their comfortable lives. Winifred Holtby’s character Sarah Burton even offered a challenge: ‘I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.’

Until I was a teenager I was surrounded by these artificial relatives spinsters from that older generation and as many as three or four times a year, they would fall ill and die. They never had children, never moved home, never changed through these stagnant years of post-war austerity. For them it was a generation without issue, and because my own parents were older than those of my friends, and because I was an only-child, there were not many people of my own age whenever family members met. Except for Christmas, death was one of the rare kinds of event that merited use of the Front Room. Sometimes the body was present there for a final visitation from those who wished, and always there was the wake, or rather, the gathering of gloom, for no-one laughed. Ginns and Gutteridge were the popular undertakers of the town and they excelled in managing these funerals where most of the mourners were depressed and unable to celebrate. There were no raised voices from the grown ups, no cries from the few children and certainly no music. I doubt that many realized this at the time, for it was still the age of defensive social stratification when each layer was wary of the others and not sure which they belonged to, signs of a tired society stuck in old habits and ossified by disuse.

Of all the simple entertainments during the austere years in the 1950s one particular kind of activity does stand out. My mother and grandma, and my father, regularly took me for a picnic to Bradgate Park, usually with Aunty Agnes. We spread rugs and blankets over the grass, sat on the ground and propped-up our backs against some rocks. Even then this was a well-known beauty spot with a view over much of the county, the Trent valley to the north and the rolling Jurassic landscape south over the city and beyond.

So it was that I spent much time alone, contemplating Nature. At Bradgate this included plant spotting and comparing the rock outcrops of the PreCambrian, now known as ‘Ediacaran’, Charnwood Series. All of us on those picnics knew the reality of hard work but not how it might lead to happiness if we were lucky. And most had learnt many horrible things from the cruel energy of work through the war. In peacetime, too, the protestant work ethic expected hard work to be a normal part of life. In Nature, over many generations, this involves creative design for a new life-style and leads to evolution, whether by natural selection of some other adaptation to changing environments. This process involves work ultimately powered by photosynthesis, giving new structures, species or order.

The universe has an innate tendency to become complex, that is, to increase its entropy. Also, life has an innate tendency to become more complex.

Often when there is such a release from stasis to a more random or chaotic state, there is an increase is entropy. If you upturn a bottle of ink the liquid spills out easily and quickly. The entropy, of the state of disorder increases, and it is impossible to return the ink to the high order of the bottle. The change is only in one direction, from lower to higher disorder or entropy. At the picnic, our work reduced entropy to a higher state of order. Sandwiches were made from different ingredients, bags were packed increasing order and stability. Collecting ideas and data, increasing knowledge, is also hard work, and it leads to wider application and understanding, like the ink spilt from a bottle.

Each state of order, or low entropy, can only move in one direction, towards disorder or higher entropy. It is like time’s arrow. Thus, through geological time of millions of years, we move from the earliest rocks of Europe, those at our picnic spot at Bradgate Park, forwards through archaeological time, then historical time to the present. Photosynthesis has enabled organic evolution into new kinds of order through all this time. War and other catastrophic events have knocked over plenty of bottles of ink. One of these was also in Bradgate Park, as we shall see, now the ruin of a large Tudor House built by the family of a Queen of England.

But the people around me in those working-class neighbourhoods didn’t have many books in their homes and didn’t care about the Second Law of Thermodynamcs. Most had left school at fourteen and had no need of knowledge in their day-to-day routine. They had very little sense of place in anywhere or anything beyond their very small province. They didn’t even know that information was at their finger-tips, in the many spacious public libraries. It was hidden in thousands of formidable volumes, protected by unfamiliar jargon. It was in contrast to the increasingly available romantic entertainment at the picture house and the public house. Most citizens were just relieved to be alive, to have survived two world wars during which quick-fixes were a main commodity. For them, there was no time or desire for theoretical matters, apart from the meaning of death, which was well provided-for by the Church. No-one had much experience of trying to find out things about life and the living. If it wasn’t in the family bible or the encyclopedia it wasn’t knowable. This isolation was thoroughly acceptable to many of my parents’ generation in their hard-won peace, for then it was ‘post-war’, as they proudly called that time of their lives. They accepted that name as their prize for the war’s end, together with the Ration Books and other symbols of wanting.

The effect of this passivity on the young people like me was considerable. We felt trapped, unable to move on from those tired traditions of this system with low entropy. We wanted to get up and go, to move forward, away from this tired generation of older people. Few of them understood our frustration at waiting to be let off this leash. We felt isolated, not even knowing who to ask for release. Many of us discovered it was easiest to ask one another, and slowly the right use of words created the right confidence to share our concerns so that by our late teens we had created an identity of our own. We began to have our own fashions, our own music and espresso coffee bars. Time’s arrow.

Were these catastrophes of human history comparable to those of the geological history that formed the Bradgate uplands? Can we ever compare such disparate events to the human experiences, say, of the World Wars that I heard my parents discussing with vivid memories of their horrible experiences? One such similarity might be the necessity of catastrophe to drive change in population. And then, they might be different ways of telling the same story and I wanted to know more about how these different slices of time joined together? Why was it that no-one seemed interested to answer my questions?

For my enquiring mind as a schoolboy in the 1950s, these were the stories from history classes. Seeing some of the locations of the events made the stories real, linking them to what I was experiencing in my own life. But I was puzzled that my dying relatives did not seem to appreciate any of it. I argued that so many women of Aunty Agnes’s generation had comparable lives to the bereaved of Tudor England, but my comparisons were not understood. Maybe their twentieth century wartime experiences were too raw. Maybe the tales were told and seen as fictional experiences, with all similarities hidden in the spin of a generation’s fashion.

Reviewing the historical events of countries and communities involves objective skills that isolate the author as much as possible from their own attachment. Inevitably the same prejudices influence the reader, writing the story from their own sense of place. To separate these consequences involves deep awareness and knowledge to a level that perhaps is not possible without a lot of experience. But such attempts are necessary to understand different readers own positions in comparison to those of others, past, present and future.

Such ideas of what had really happened at Bradgate flashed across my mind as I sat on the rug for those picnics. I was on that little oasis with the only people in the world who I knew much about, an insignificant flash in time from when the rocks we were sitting on were formed, to the family lifestyle at Bradgate House in Tudor England, to my own father’s wartime tragedy. Here they were displayed together in the same setting, showing comparable features of long intervals of quiet order separated by sudden chaos. Perhaps these English landscapes held clues of other stable times between different happenings, and perhaps there are patterns in how they occurred and in how we see them?

Only a few minutes’ walk from our picnic spot are the ruins of a grand mansion called Bradgate House. It was built around 1530 by Thomas Grey, the second Marquis of Dorset, and was one of the first unfortified large houses in England. The house was owned by his family for the next two centuries but when they eventually moved out around 1739 the building became neglected and it burnt down. Now the ruins are looked after by a Charitable Trust and groups of local historians and archaeologists. Soon after it was built the house became home to Thomas Grey’s oldest daughter, Jane, and she had her second birthday there. The story that she was born at Bradgate can’t be true as the house was not fully built until 1539. It is more likely that she was born at Dorset House, her father’s town house on the Strand in Westminster.  But Jane was brought up at Bradgate where she became a committed protestant and a talented scholar, never enjoying the outdoor sports and hunting on the estate that were favoured by her father.

Jane Grey was a quiet and serious student who understood her family’s role in the politics of the time. Her late uncle, Henry VIII, had left a complex legacy for his succession that led to tumultuous events in the summer of 1553 and one of the most serious constitutional crises in England’s history. And this seventeen year old girl was at the centre of the chaos. It amounted to what would now be called a political coup, with one group seizing power from another by threats and acts of force.

The scene for these extraordinary events began slowly a few years before, with Henry VIII’s project to reform Christianity across the country.  Breaking ties with the Roman Catholic Church involved dissolving the monasteries and establishing a Book of Common Prayer. Luther had started a similar programme of Reformation across the northern part of mainland Europe and Henry’s new Church of England was altering the daily lives of most people across England. It involved a re-distribution of responsibilities and management to the great estates and stimulated new arrangements in education and land management, all involving major changes in life-styles for ordinary people. The campaign had strong support from some of the powerful English families but there were large regions of opposition and some strong-minded individual opponents of reform, most notably Henry’s daughter, Mary, who remained a Catholic. Famously, it became increasingly important to Henry that he had a son to claim the throne away from Mary and in 1537 the birth of Edward seemed to assure the continuation of reform into his new generation.

Does this hint at similarities to the ways biology maintains the strength and efficiency of whole populations through the recombination of the nucleotide base parts of nucleic acids? That sexual process costs energy to fight the lust of randomness and chaos.

Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving the nine-year old King Edward VI to see through the difficult reforms in how the Church was controlling society. Surrounded with his father’s old friends, the young king did enable the reforms to continue and clerical celibacy was abolished, the Mass replaced, and an English rather than a Latin Order of Service began. But a sense of crisis began in February 1553 when Edward developed a serious lung infection. To avoid the crown going to his Roman Catholic sister, Mary, Edward had nominated his cousin, Jane Grey, to be the next Protestant monarch. Her grandmother had been Henry VIII’s sister but this was not a clear route to the succession. There was no clear pathway to the succession.  There was also strong pressure to retain Henry’s and Edwards’ reforms. To prevent Edward’s sister taking the throne, the Privy Council and other Establishment groups were thrown into crisis negotiations. The powerful Duke of Northumberland, otherwise known as John Dudley Earl of Warwick and Chairman of the Privy Council is thought to have persuaded them to agree that Jane Grey of Bradgate House be crowned Queen.

To add to the confusion, on May 25th 1553 the young Jane had married Guildford Dudley, the son of this very same Duke of Northumberland. It was a lavish ceremony at Durham House in Whitehall, the Duke’s own town house. There were jousts, games and masques with different teams of men and women. The French and Venetian Ambassadors had been invited, together with a great selection of aristocracy and many common people. But not far beneath the surface of merriment there was a lot of division and fear.

Edward VI’s will which was finally issued as letters patent on 21 June was signed by 102 notables, among them the whole Privy Council, peers, bishops, judges, and London aldermen. The declaration was to be passed in parliament in September, and the necessary writs were prepared. The King died on 6 July 1553 and Jane was not informed that she was queen until three days later. According to her own later claims, she accepted the crown only with reluctance and the next day she was officially proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland. Then she took up secure residence in the Tower of London, where English monarchs customarily resided from the time of accession until coronation.

And so, on July 10th 1553 Jane Grey became Queen of England. She and her advisors were big thinkers. Their plots and campaigns were to enable the system’s randomness to increase, its entropy to take hold of society.

For Jane, the first sign of change was from her new partner Guildford Dudley, who declared his own wish to be made king. Had it all been a plot by Guildford’s father, Northumberland? Although the chronicler Richard Grafton described Guildford as ‘a comely, virtuous and goodly gentleman’, Jane herself said that her new father-in-law ‘brought me and our stock in most miserable calamity and misery by his exceeding ambition’. The tranquility that she had sensed from Bradgate Park, and which influenced many before and since, not just my own family with our strolls around its grounds, then suddenly stopped the peace in Jane Grey’s own life. Her memory is kept alive by being a political pawn whose destiny was out of her own control.

Jane refused to name her husband Guildford Dudley as king by letters patent and deferred to Parliament. She offered to make him Duke of Clarence instead and declared that she ‘had just title to disturb, repel and resist the feigned and untrue claim of the Lady Mary, bastard daughter to our great uncle Northumberland had to isolate and, ideally, capture Lady Mary to prevent her from gathering support. Already Mary had demanded of the Privy Council that she be accepted as queen and on hearing of King Edward’s death she left the safety of her home at Hunsdon and set out to East Anglia, where she began to rally her supporters. First, she evaded challenge from Northumberland’s other son Robert Dudley, who had been sent to detain her the day after Edward’s death. They feared that as a free woman Mary would fight for the crown and for Catholicism.

Northumberland himself set out from London with troops on 14th July, passing from Ware to Cambridge by the 18th. Along that road the army aimed to recruit more troops but it was harder than had been expected and by the time they reached Bury St Edmunds the men were ‘rotten with dissatisfaction’. Reinforcements had been promised from Lincolnshire and the Midlands but had not arrived. Then there were rumors of six warships with heavy artillery offshore Suffolk and of 10,000 men supporting Mary who had dug-in nearby around Framlingham. The rumours were true and Mary’s men outnumbered Northumberland’s by three to one.

Things came to a head on July 19th when the Privy Council, in the absence of Northumberland, switched their allegiance from Jane and proclaimed Mary queen. Immediately, this set off great jubilation of the populace. In the Tower of London, Jane was moved from the royal residence to the gaoler’s apartments and her husband to the Beauchamp Tower. A new queen entered London in a triumphal procession on 3rd August. To even more acclaim on 22nd August, the Duke of Northumberland was executed and in September, parliament declared Mary the rightful queen. Jane was denounced as a usurper and her proclamation was revoked. Few had reckoned on the steely determination of Mary or on the power of the common people who backed her. Jane had reined as queen for just nine days, and was executed the following year on the same day as her husband Guildford Dudley.

Jane’s tragdy and the failure of protestant reform was not the end of the catastrophe. Through the five years of her rein Mary executed 283 of her opponents, under a 150 year old law of the Heresy Acts. These events of the 1550s led to dramatic changes in English life. But Bradgate Park holds evidence for another catastrophic event, a change in climate 560 million years ago, in which the Ediacaran biota shows that entropy and evolution were shifting the planet Earth into a new phase of its existence.

Another clue to this catastrophic event at Bradgate was reported in the local newspaper around the very time of my family picnics at Bradgate. A local schoolboy called Roger Mason, who I did not know and went to a different school to mine, found some frond-like impression fossils on rocks that outcropped in Bradgate Park.  They were the same kind of rocks I knew from our picnics, and so the news item kindled my attention and began an interest that unconsciously took me further into the objective ways of science.

Mason took his discovery to the local museum and the evidence was passed on to a geologist at the university, Trevor Ford. Mason took Ford to visit the fossil site and convinced him that it was a genuine fossil. His publication of the discovery in the Journal of the Yorkshire Geological Society established the genus Charnia and aroused worldwide interest.

Similar frond-like fossils had been foundin the Pound Quartzite of the Flinders Ranges north of Adelaide, Australia, in 1946 by a geologist called Reginald Sprigg but they met with little interest. However, Ford’s article encouraged Martin Glaessner of Adelaide University to publish a note in Nature comparing Charnia with impressions found in the Ediacaran strata of South Australia. He referred them to the Pennatulacea, sea-pens, extinct and distant relations of corals and though not proven, this is still a widely held interpretation. But then the position of the continents on the Earth’s surface was not understood so the apparently distant occurrence was confusing.

The Bradgate rock was dark and hard and they said it was older than the granites and slates from Scotland and Wales. But why did these unusual crags stick out of the smooth landscape of the surrounding countryside with its soft clays and gently undulating river flood plains? How does the Bradgate rock relate to the only other high ground nearby, the so-called One Thousand Foot Surface of the Carboniferous Limestone hills of the Derbyshire Peak District, a few miles to the north? What was the shape of Europe when these Bradgate Hills were formed?

Now we know that the Bradgate rocks came from a series of volcanic eruptions that poured molten lava into an early sea 525 million years ago. It is the oldest outcrop of rock that survives in Europe but we also know that an even more violent event had taken place a few million years earlier, 560 Ma.

After more discoveries of Charnia masoni and Charniodiscus concentricus several species of the Charnian fauna have been named: Bradgatia linfordensis, Charnia grandis, Blackbrookia oaksi, Ivesheadia lobata, Shepshedia palmata and Cyclomedusa cliffi. In the last ten years more fossils have been found on at least two bedding planes. They include a number of specimens of B. linfordensis, one about a metre long, a disc about 19 cm in diameter, and worm-like trails of knotted stems. Some uranium/lead radiometric age dates have been obtained for the upper part of the stratum which contains the main Ediacaran fossil horizons. They indicate an age of 566-559 million years for this interval, which is in keeping with ages obtained for the Ediacaran biota worldwide.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, with more identifications of these strange soft-bodied creatures, questions about their origin became increasingly complex. They were such distinct organisms, always without hard protective outer covering and never in an assemblage with the well-known fossils that did have such protection. Was it a real evolutionary stage that meant life forms 560Ma were of this more basic form? Was it a preservation factor, in which the well-known hard outer shells had not been fossilised? If it was the first of these explanations, then how did these soft-bodied creatures originate? And why were the harder bodied species absent in the Ediacaran?

An important clue came from the separate observation in some other Ediacaran rocks of signs of glaciation. And because many of these signs are from rocks known to have formed near the Earth’s equator, then the ice age must have covered the whole planet in ice or at least slush. In turn, that unusual episode might have caused some of the soft species to develop protection from the cold, meaning that what we now call animals began to evolve, stimulated by the shock of the so-called Gaskiers glacial event, 579 Ma.

This was a relatively short interval of 340 thousand years, with widespread glacial deposits. These rocks are only ten to twenty million years older than the Bradgate outcrops, and have been found from 8 palaeocontinents. Is there a connection between this climatic event and the outburst in biodiversity that followed? Other life forms made up an extensive Ediacaran Biota with single- and multi-cellular: acritarchs, protists, algae and lichens. Although there are signs that chlorophyll was around in those times, and drove some kind of early photosynthesis, oxygen concentrations were very low. In turn this restricted most respiration to the anaerobic pathway, meaning that organisms had too little energy for a robust life-style.

The Ediacaran environment was also very strange in comparison to what we have now 580 million years later. Some astonomers think the moon was closer to Earth, that a day was 22 hours and there were about 400 days a year. Surface temperatures were higher than today, perhaps by as much as 30oC. The oxygen concentration in the atmosphere was steadily increasing at around 30% of today’s levels. Carbon dioxide concentrations were 16 times higher than now.  

There’s a generally accepted view in the minds of scientists that planet Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago by accretions from the solar nebula. The number of years is so out of focus for much precision that any variation goes undetected, and there are no radically different ways of measuring them. Although the age is not controversial the process, or processes, by which it was formed certainly are. Through the last few decades, new and often very different kinds of evidence are being found from many different sources. Even books attempting to summarise the latest range of theories quickly become out of date though the internet is good at keeping up.

A theory about Earth’s origin that I find attractive suggests that volcanic gasses formed the planet’s primordial atmosphere with little oxygen for the respiration needed for most life. The Earth was still molten because of frequent collisions with other bodies and they led to extreme volcanism. Then, as the crust solidified, the planet was hit by a large object from space. The very large collision is thought to have been responsible for tilting the Earth at an angle and forming our Moon and the seasons. Over time the planet cooled and formed a solid crust, allowing liquid water to exist on the surface. I expect this idea will be adapted before too long, changing and becoming more credible to different consumers. The Earth, too, is changing to the life-styles of some of its present unruly inhabitants, but that is another story and the opposite kind of action-reaction.

Np – entropy event

The first life forms appeared between 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago. The earliest evidences for life on Earth are biological carbon from 3.7 billion year old rocks in western Greenland and microbial fossils found in 3.48 billion year old limestone from Western Australia. Photosynthetic life appeared around 2 billion years ago, enriching the atmosphere with oxygen, and remained microscopic until c541 million years ago, when complex multicellular life began. During the Cambrian Period it experienced a rapid diversification into most major animal phyla.

This was the interval of the so-called Ice-Ball Earth, when the surface of much of the Earth was frozen below -20oC. Evidence for this came during the 1990s, firstly from stones of that age known to be left behind by glaciers, and found in South Africa. Perhaps there was a belt of water at the Earth’s equator but otherwise the ice covered the entire globe. There is evidence that the ice formed very quickly by sudden removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. At 660Ma volcanic activity began to replace the lost CO2 which caused temperatures to rise again very slowly. That world was very different to what we are used to. Sea and atmosphere had very different compositions.

There is no shortage of hypotheses to explain the shift of evolutionary dynamics at the beginning of the Ediacaran 635 – 541Ma, such as Snowball Earth, a meteorite impact, and increase in atmospheric oxygen from photosynthesis. There may also have been some influence on ecology and evolution from the rise of a relatively sophisticated group of animals with a differentiated gut and nervous system, the Eumetazoa. They were capable of building multi-tiered trophic structures, and driving the morphology-based co-evolutionary arms-races that give the Phanerozoic (541 – 0 Ma) biosphere its peculiar character. Especially, this features large organismal size, complex behaviour, biomineralization, high diversity, high standing biomass, rapid evolutionary turnover, dynamic stability, dynamic instability, mass extinction, biogeographic partitioning, and eukaryote-dominated primary productivity.

Recent studies of Ediacaran fossils have yielded an abundance of prokaryotes and eukaryotes and the emerging patterns differ fundamentally from those of the Phanerozoic that immediately followed. Prior to ca. 635 Ma, not only were all organisms effectively microscopic, but diversity appears to have been lower and evolutionary turnover slower than at any subsequent time. The principal signature is of profound evolutionary stasis and no measurable extinction, over hundreds of millions of years.

All this changed 635Ma with the onset of the Ediacaran, which began with the first measurable radiation in the whole of the fossil record, followed closely by the appearance and relatively rapid turnover of Ediacaran macrofossils. These are the first sedimentary trace fossils and the first biomineralized macrofossils, marking a fundamental shift towards macroevolutionary patterns typical of more recent times.

Np – entropy event

With the Eumetazoa, life on Earth took the form of two, more-or-less mutually exclusive phases, separated by the Ediacaran Period. It was during this critical, 100 million-year transition that animal- based ecosystems were developed according to the uniformitarian rules of the second phase of the Phanerozoic, manifest as macroecology and macroevolution.

The Earth has supported an active biosphere for at least the past 3500 million years, but the familiar fossil record is limited to just the last ca. 541 million years of the Phanerozoic record. It documents a wealth of large scale macroevolutionary patterns with mass extinctions and adaptive radiations, and sheds important light on the function and origin of the modern biosphere.

The Bradgate discoveries of early life had little meaning or interest to nearly all my childhood relatives. These grey local people could only look back to their own past and no further: their lives had been hard, like most individuals of the millions of species climbing Darwin’s Tree of Life. Of the species that have lived since the Ediacaran Bradgate fossils only our own has had the means of recognising that history. Only a much smaller number of human individuals have the wisdom to have some kind of understanding of its significance but that number is growing. Life is hard despite its beauty.

The journey to my own level of appreciation was through the chance of particular events and opportunities, mostly by being in the particular place at a very particular time. This is my unique story of my own unique experiences and reactions. One of the wonders of nature is that every individual of every species, has its own unique experience and reaction. Each view is different and each time of being-alive gives different experiences. It is some wonder, then, that the evidence shows so many similar reactions despite very long intervals of quietness when not much seems to happen.

That was not how I felt when I was sitting on that rug in Bradgate Park with Aunty Agnes and my mum and dad. Certainly it was how I perceived the grown-ups reacting to the day-out very parochially, commenting about the weather, wondering if there was enough food, keeping an eye on the time to catch the bus home. That was the level of expectation of our days-out; I’ve heard similar accounts from generations of travellers on their own holidays. Yet for every one of those individuals, hidden just below the surface of their own knowledge was a little sense of mystery about the surrounding countryside, a few intelligent questions about the origin and history of what’s out in front: that is enough to start an inquisitive individual off on their own unique journey.

When I was a little boy that realisation must have been shown to me a hundred times and I remember making some of the observations myself. It meant I wanted to ask questions and find answers of what was going on for me and for my fellow passengers. It helped that the people surrounding me wanted the same thing from me, and it helped that there were few distractions. Or, at least I thought it helped at the time. For now I can see that my isolation was a hindrance and that I lost out a lot on the way: not having anyone to help.  

At school I was taught very little and learnt a great deal by conversing. It provided a structure for living and learning, gave confidence, and showed how important it is to think about the questions before you ask. It was topical, social and challenging, particularly in my own field of evolutionary biology, and exciting breakthroughs were changing the way to understand how and why living things are here. University College London was a another good place to connect to these developments but I didn’t feel confident that I knew much about biology until three years later when I found myself going off to share the discoveries and teach about them. This was with students studying for University of London External degrees in various London Colleges. So began my own PhD study as a part-time student – evenings and weekends for a PhD on “An Upper Tertiary Flora from Derbyshire” in 1970.