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Literature / Evolution

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Evolution is a novel by Stephen Baxter spanning 645 million years of Earth's history, with most chapters focusing on 65 million years ago to 30 million years in the future. The book is split into three parts: Ancestors, which focuses on various director ancestors to humans, starting with a ratlike animal that coexisted with the dinosaurs; Humans, which depicts various turning in human development; and Descendants, which is set After the End.


This book provides examples of:

  • One-Gender Race: The last of humanity's descendants 500 million years in the future are all functionally female, there are no males any more, and gender is meaningless.
  • Absurdly Dedicated Worker: The replicator robots have been designed as a precursor to human colonisation of Mars, with instructions to build homes, assemble air and water, grow food and build cars, computers and other conveniences for the colonists. No human ever arrives at Mars before their downfall, but the replicating robots keep doing their job even after they lose contact with humans. Until they were told otherwise, their only purpose was to replicate, eventually destroying Mars and spreading around the universe.
  • Adam and Eve Plot: Averted in "The Long Shadow." The sole female member of the reawakened squadron runs away because she knows the men want to enact this with her.
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  • After the End: Due to the timescale of the books, many chapters could qualify, but the Descendants section is the most obvious from a human perspective.
  • Alas, Poor Yorick: Mother digs out her child's skull and cradles it, later she starts using it as a totem to gain influence over her tribe.
  • Alien Sky:
    • The soldiers who awake many millennia of years in the future in "The Long Shadow" find a sky with no Mars and constellations that have somewhat changed as their composing stars have moved through the sky and new stars have been born. The latter fact is also mentioned in Remembrance's part, having happened to a much larger degree.
    • Earth's sky in Ultimate's time has also an Andromeda Galaxy that appears larger and brighter as it has moved towards the Milky Way and a brighter Moon thanks to a more luminous Sun.
    • The skies end up Venus-like, covered in clouds, when the luminosity of the Sun climbs enough and much later on when the former has swollen into a red giant it's implied it dominates them.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: It's not stated exactly when "A Long Shadow" (the first chapter in the Descendants section) takes place. The characters can only speculate that it must have been more than a millennium since civilisation ended and they were put into cryostasis.
  • Anachronic Order: Halfway throughout Purga's story in the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, the book takes a side-trip to the Ornitholestes Listener, an intelligent dinosaur living in the depths of the Jurassic.
  • And the Adventure Continues: A flashforward mentions another planet that was seeded by the last life on Earth.
  • Antlion Monster: The rat-mouths of New Pangaea, descendants of rodents, live in underground holes and catch their food by waiting for an unlucky animal to fall into their maw.
  • Apocalypse How: Several categories.
    • Class 3a: Natural Human Extinction: Begins to happen in the 2031 segments, when a supervolcano explodes before the humans get a chance to undo the damage done to the environment.
    • Another 3a happens to the intelligent dinosaurs from "The Hunters of Pangaea". It may have been hastened by the decision of the protagonist to kill the matriarch of the Diplodocus herd that they depend upon, but at that point she was aware that they were doomed.
    • Class 4: Biosphere Extinction: Several. The extinction of the dinosaurs is described in detail, as is the effects of humans on biodiversity. There is also mention of the asteroid Eros impacting 30 million years from now.
    • Class 5: Planetary Extinction and Class 6: Planetary Desolation: In the flash-forward near the end of the book, the planet gets so hot that only bacteria are able to survive, then so hot that nothing can survive.
    • Class X: Planetary Annihilation: Mars gets it from some self-replicating robots that humans sent to Mars soon before dying out. The robots go on to create a civilization that lasts much, much longer than humanity did. In the flash-forward mentioned above, the Earth is also destroyed by the dying Sun.
  • Artistic License – Astronomy: While it's true the Sun gets more luminous with time and that increasing luminosity will mess so much with Earth's climate that will cause the eventual extinction of life and loss of oceans much before it goes into red-giant mode, the Sun that will shine 500 million years in the future, when the last chapter of the book takes place, will not be very different of the current one in size and luminosity and not the ferocious one Baxter describes, at least if stellar evolution models are right, even if luminous enough to begin affecting life. See [1]
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: Implied with "Cata Huuk", the in-story name of the Proto-Indo-European town located in present-day Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Possibly the idea is that Cata Huuk was the original name, but this is certainly incorrect. Çatalhöyük means Fork Mound in Turkish, a non-Indo-European language.
  • Artistic License – Paleontology: While most of the time Baxter gets the science right, and the speculative leaps he takes are somewhat within the bounds of plausibility, a few examples must be mentioned.
    • First of all, in the story about the sapient Ornitholestes, he mentions that the only evidence humans had of these species is the disappearance of sauropods in the Late Jurassic, since the sapient species' bones and technology are too fragile to preserve. Problem is, sauropods didn't go extinct in the Late Jurassic, not even in the Northern Hemisphere. There were as many sauropods inhabiting North America in the Early Cretaceous as there were in the Late Jurassic, including Astrodon, Sauroposeidon, and Sonorasaurus. However, there was a mass extinction at the end of the Jurassic that claimed the dominant Jurassic sauropods, and the sauropods referred to in that story were all Diplodocus, which did go extinct then. The phrase was "the disappearance of the giant sauropods". It could easily have meant just those specific species, not sauropods in general, but the wording is nonetheless ambiguous.
    • The story about primates coming to South America has some anachronism and Misplaced Wildlife in it too. Not only does it have indricotherid rhinos (native only to Asia), camels (who were only found in North America at this time), and such, it has gastornid birds inhabiting Oligocene-Miocene Africa... even after these animals were supposed to have died out in the middle Eocene.
    • In the story involving Purgatorius, while Baxter does get it right by cloaking his troodonts in feathers, he leaves them off his dromaeosaurs. To add insult to injury, he makes the raptors cold-blooded, despite the fact that raptors are the very dinosaurs which ignited the cold blood/warm blood debate. In fact, even paleontologists who doubt endothermy in ornithischians and sauropods don't deny that raptors were most likely endothermic. And then there are the Giganotosaurus and Suchomimus in North America. Not only are these animals in the wrong place (Giganotosaurus was from South America, Suchomimus from Africa), but they are from the wrong time, both species were from the Early Cretaceous; Baster excuses these particular issues by having the dinosaurs in question belong to different but related species whose fossils simply haven't been found.
  • Ascended to Carnivorism: The Antarctican descendants of the herbivorous Leaellynasaura have learnt to eat meat and become scavengers.
  • Author Tract: Many interesting ideas are pushed aside by Baxter promoting his specific sociological views.
  • The Beautiful Elite: A consequence of the development of genetic engineering is that the rich can now spend their money to make their children look better.
  • Bee People: The mole-like posthumans have adopted eusociality, where the majority of the population are sterile females, to adapt to living in cramped underground burrows.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Very much so, though which part is bitter and which is sweet may not be so clear-cut. All the primates are dead, along with all life on Earth, and all recognizable traces of humans are long gone, but they're succeeded by a mechanical civilization, and bacteria from Earth seeded life on new worlds, condemning them to the same eons-long cycle of violence that once engulfed Earth.
  • Blessed with Suck: The invisible mutant frogs of New Pangaea are blind, inefficient and very susceptible to cancer. All of them die before reaching adulthood. But that's okay, because they catch meat for their siblings.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Through the book, actions of infanticide, rape and genocide of other tribes and people are given the motivation of survival and passing the genes to the next generation, with all its cold logic explained.
  • Colony Drop: Two –the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs and Eros in the future.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Baxter's explanation of how human civilisation ends emphasises that we are prey to powerful forces that we cannot control. The undoing of humanity is not nuclear war, global warming or a deadly virus grown in a laboratory, but an enormous super-volcano that disrupts the planet's weather systems enough to cause civilisation to collapse. Volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, ice ages and indeed evolution itself destroy humanity's delusions of grandeur. Humans are no different from the millions of species that have come into being, thrived, then vanished into oblivion. In the eyes of Earth, we are a minor flash in the pan. In the eyes of the cosmos, we are less than a speck of dust. Look at those who have fallen before us; why should we fare any better? Are we really any different?
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Three of the first protagonists of the story are a Purgatorius named Purga, a Plesiadapis named Plesi and a Notharctus named Noth. Purga's nemesis in the first chapter is a Troodon named Wounding Tooth (which is what Troodon means in Greek). Of course none of these characters actually call themselves by names; they are more like convenient labels used by the story to refer to them.
  • Double Meaning: The ruler of Cata Huuk is known as the Potus. While a passable cognate for potentate, this can be a humorous play on the acronym POTUS for President of the United States.
  • Downer Ending: Many resolutions to the individual chapters. The novel itself ends with the death of the last primate to reproduce, and might count depending on whether you care about bacteria seeding new life or robot civilizations.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: For Purga, Plesi and Remembrance, life is nasty, brutal and short. In "Kingdom of the Rats", Remembrace escapes her homicidal cousins in the trees, ran into a giant rat on the forest floor, and escapes into the treetops only to be plucked by a giant finch. The savage landscape of the selfish gene is their habitat.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: Or monkey-like ancestors to both monkeys and apes.
  • The Fair Folk: The pithecines, who took to living as scavengers in the forest fringe and occasionally hunted humans, their savannah-dwelling cousins, are depicted as the basis in reality of these myths.
    When they had committed themselves to the savannah, Far's kind had turned their backs on the forest — which had, as if in revenge, become a place not of sanctuary but of claustrophobic danger, populated by these pithecines which, like the sprites they resembled, would inhabit nightmares long into the future.
  • Feathered Fiend: The finches and starlings, having survived and thrived in the wake of humanity, have become ferocious killers to the mammals dwelling under the forest canopy.
  • Final Solution: At the end of "A Crowded Land", a group of anatomically modern humans arrive at an island and exterminate the local population of late Homo erectus people, stranded there millennia earlier as sea levels rose.
  • Flying Seafood Special: Fish that fly with winglike fins are one of the creatures that populate the Earth 30 million years after humanity's downfall.
  • Formerly Sapient Species: "Descendants" depicts the regression of humanity back into non-sapient, tree-dwelling primates.
    • In the section's first chapter, a squadron of soldiers are awakened from cryostasis an uncertain number of millennia into the future and encounter a troop of hairy feral posthumans.
    • By thirty million years hence, they have returned to being arboreal apes. Their nests vaguely resemble small buildings that they decorate with glass fragments to ward off predators, but they are otherwise little different from a chimp or australopithecine. Numerous other posthuman species have emerged by this point, including arboreal hunters, elephantine giants "farmed" by carnivorous rats and burrowing creatures living in underground hives.
    • By half a billion years hence, when life on Earth is coming to an end, posthumans are the last mammals: small, russet-furred monkey-like animals that live in chemical thrall to a species of tree.
  • Future Imperfect: During the first five thousand years of the human colonisation of Australia, they have killed off all the continent's megafauna, such as giant kangaroos, which survive only as cave paintings. They are dismissed as childish doodling by people who have already forgotten what has been lost.
  • Future Primitive: Millions of years from now, humanity's distant descendants have shed their intelligence and reverted to a simpler way of life.
  • Giant Flyer: The air whale, a giant pterosaur with a 100-metre wingspan that lives in the stratosphere and leaves no fossil evidence behind.
  • Groin Attack: Solo bites off a testicle from the Notharctus troop’s alpha male, the Emperor. Fortunately they seem to have much a lower pain threshold in that particular part of their anatomy than humans.
  • Grows on Trees: The borametz Trees of New Pangaea are involved in posthuman reproduction by mixing the parents' bodily fluid, and also feed the children with the organic mechanisms in their leafy cocoons.
  • Human Popsicle: Some soldiers end up that way and awake in an unknown future in "The Long Shadow".
  • Human Sacrifice: An invention of Mother to remove political dissidents, under the guise of bringing rain. Fortunately only two sacrificial victims are required before the rains come; she was quite prepared to work her way through the entire tribe.
  • Humanity's Wake: The Descendants section takes place in the future, about humanity's descendants after the end of civilisation.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Baxter's views on humanity are depressing. We are almost always represented under disastrous lights: we exhaust our resources, we exploit anything of benefit to us. We are unable to overcome our animal urge to destroy anything we do not know or understand. Selfishness and xenophobia are mankind's modus operandi.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Zigzagged with the early humans who believed they were living in harmony with nature by hunting animals lightly. In other words, they were driving their prey to extinction by killing the animals at a time when they were vulnerable, by selectively killing off the young, by disrupting habitats and by taking out key components of the food web.
  • Invisibility with Drawbacks: All invisible mutant frogs are blind (a transparent retina can't trap light), have inefficient biochemistry for having to use transparent substitutes, are extremely vulnerable to cancer for lack of protection from light, heat and the Sun's radiation, and live short, wretched lives in constant agony before dying as juveniles, never reaching adulthood.
  • Invisible Monsters: 500 million years in the future, a species of amphibians has a chance to produce a mutant that replaces most of the body's biochemicals with transparent substances, making it almost invisible and extremely difficult to detect, looking like little more than big bags of water sitting in the desert of New Pangaea.
  • Irony: Purga survives long after menopause and lives to actually die of old age (which is normally extremely rare in the wild)... thanks to the impact that killed off the dinosaurs and many others.
    And it was an irony that in former times she would surely already have succumbed to predation by now: It was the great emptying of the world that had preserved her life — a few extra months won at the expense of uncounted billions of creatures.
  • Just Before the End: "A Far Distant Futurity" set 500 million years into the future, when the continents of earth have merged into a hot, flat, dry supercontinent that resembles the surface of Mars, and life is on the decline. "The Last Burrow", "Last Contact", "The Dying Light" and the epilogue also count, for the end of the polar dinosaurs, Neanderthals, the Western Roman Empire, and humanity respectively.
  • Kill It with Ice: The very last polar dinosaurs are slowly frozen to death by Antarctica's glaciation.
  • Mad Scientist: Mother understands the concept of cause and effect, and is capable of abstract thought. This enables her to invent the spear thrower, a crucial invention because her people are starving. But Mother's enhanced mental powers come at a cost; many of her ideas come to her when she is having crippling migraine attacks. She begins to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia following the death of her son, and invents the world's first religion.
  • Mechanical Evolution: The replicator robots sent to Mars tried, incorporated and abandoned many modifications when replicating themselves, creating new kinds of robots, learning and adapting whenever they encounter a new condition.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: The world 30 million years in the future is full of these: rat-leopards, rat-cheetahs, mouse-raptors, elephant-men, mole-men, rabbit-gazelles, goat-elephants, duck-billed goats, finch-eagles, cormorant-cetaceans and so on. Strictly speaking, however, these are simply animals that have evolved to closely resemble other, extinct lineages, rather than being actual chimeras of different creatures.
    Thus there were rabbits morphed into gazelles, rats become cheetahs. Only subtleties were changed — a nervous twitchiness about the rabbits, a hard-running intensity about the rats that had replaced the cats' languid grace.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Eros crashes into Earth causing an extinction-level event because of the lack of a planet Mars that stabilizes its orbit.
  • Nice Mice: Thoroughly averted with the future mouse-raptors. The combination sounds ludicrous, but they are among the most dangerous and unnerving creatures in their ecosystem as intelligent and social predators.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: A Neanderthal known as the Old Man looks after Jahna and her brother when they are cut off from a hunting party in a snowstorm. Does his hospitality result in gratitude, reconciliation with the skinnies? No, his generosity is rewarded by the children's father only with a brutal death.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: During their unintended journey from Africa to South America, the hungry anthros are forced to eat their own dead so the living won't starve to death.
  • No Pregger Sex: Averted; one of the stories deals with a pregnant 17 year old girl that offers herself sexually to a Dirty Old Man with a fetish for pregnant women in exchange for sparing the life of her child.
  • Nobody Poops: Averted. Boy, do they ever. There are few chapter where the author does not go into gratuitous detail about excrement, urine and/or raging erections.
  • Not So Extinct: One of Alison Scott's genetic creations are a living reconstruction of an Australopithecus.
  • Of the People: Early hominids don't need to dehumanize people because it never occurs to them that hominids not members of their own band are people.
    And just as they were able to believe that things, weapons or animals or the sky, were in some way people, it wasn't a hard leap to make to believe that some people were no more than things. The old categories had broken down. In attacking the river folk they weren't killing humans, people like themselves. The river folk, for all their technical cleverness with fire and clay, had no such belief.
  • Path of Inspiration: Gods, religion, life after death, black magic and human sacrifice are depicted as the creation of a manipulative, emotionally unbalanced woman wielding her dead son's memory as a weapon in a bid to gain political power. On the other hand, religion is shown to have also a positive impact on the tribe since its teachings improve the quality of life of its members and bring unity to them.
  • People Farms: The mouse-raptors 30 million years in the future domesticate, protect and farm a species of elephant-like descendants of humans for food.
  • Precursors: The Ornitholestes from the second chapter could be considered this to mankind, being a civilization that existed in the Jurassic. Unlike most examples, though, nobody will ever know that they existed, as they only made tools out of wood, and the only evidence of their existence is the extinction of some types of sauropods in the Jurassic.
  • Quest to the West: "The Crossing". A group of monkeys are swept out from the Congo River to the Atlantic by a flash flood. They survive the immediate peril by clinging to a raft of matted vegetation, but then have to endure weeks of thirst and starvation, during which many of them die. At length, the raft drifts ashore and the survivors find themselves in South America, becoming the progenitors of the New World monkeys that live there to this day.
  • Ragnarök Proofing:
    • Averted. Very little remains of human civilization except fossils and some very durable structures such as an artificial cave or a gorge excavated to build a road.
    • In "The Long Shadow", while preserved stuff as guns has survived, concrete has degraded, metal has rusted off, and everything else has been victim of the ravages of time.
    • The end of Remembrance's part mentions the NEAR-Shoemaker probe still on the asteroid Eros, even if it having suffered the effects of space weathering.
  • The Remnant: "The Last Burrow" depicts the Antarctica ecosystem 55 million years after the Cretaceous impact, where small lemming-like primates compete with the last non-avian dinosaurs which survived the Cretaceous impact, including the descendants of Muttaburrasaurus, Leaellynasaura and Allosaurus, with a Koolasuchus thrown in somewhere.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: 30 millions after the end of civilisation, the rodent survivors of the crash have diversified into rat-cheetahs, rat-leopards and mouse-raptors that hunt rabbit-gazelles and duck-billed goats.
  • Scenery Gorn: After many vivid descriptions of the world of the dinosaurs, both in the late Jurassic and the late Cretaceous, the destruction of that world is described just as vividly.
  • Scenery Porn: The world is much more developed and interesting than the characters.
  • Servant Race: At the end of civilisation, humanity was heading to this when the genriched elite inserted a whole extra chromosome full of desirable genes into their kids, which stops them from breeding with unenhanced Homo sapiens. The rich have set themselves up as a separate species.
  • Shout-Out: With bitter irony, the characters of "The Long Shadow" name a feral posthuman girl Weena, but she could not be more different from Wells' 'little doll of a creature': she is covered in fur and stinks 'like a monkey cage'.
    • Dog- and leopard-rats, ungulate-rabbits, elephant-pigs, eagle-passerines, whale-seabirds, and hadrosaur-ungulates may have been inspired by After Man: A Zoology of the Future.
  • Single-Biome Planet: New Pangaea, a supercontinent which will reassemble 500 million years into the future, is entirely covered by a uniform desert of red dust.
    On this New Pangaea, there were no barriers, no lakes or mountain ranges. Nowadays it didn’t matter where you went, from pole to equator, from east to west. Everywhere was the same. And there was dust everywhere. Even the air was full of red dust, suspended there by the habitual sandstorms, making the sky a butterscotch-coloured dome. It was more like Mars than Earth.
  • Slave Race: 31000 years ago, humans co-exist with the last Neanderthals, but despise them, calling them 'boneheads', treat them no better than vermin and have reduced them to pack-animals to haul their sleds.
  • Slept Through the Apocalypse: One of the stories deals with a group of soldiers who were in suspended animation waking up hundreds of thousands of years after the human civilization collapsed, they encounter the precursors of raptor-like rodents and a group of feral humans.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: A Troodon pursues Purga, the protagonist of the first chapter, not because she's hungry, but because she snapped when she found Purga eating her eggs.
  • Swarm of Rats: The narration notes that the packs of predator rats living thirty million years hence still run closely together in a way that evokes this more than a wolf pack.
  • The Symbiote: The inhabitants of New Pangaea took the principle of cooperation and sharing to its extremes to survive in the dying Earth. The borametz Tree cannot survive without the insects that bring nutrients to its roots, and the mammals who bring it water, food, and salt, and plant its seeds. Even its leaves belong to another plant. Likewise the symbiotes cannot have survived without the Tree, which shelters them from predators and climate, and feeds them with its sap.
  • Theme Naming: The chapters set in the human era link a diverse set of protagonists named Ja-ahn, Ejan, Jo-on, Jahna, Juna and Joan Useb over a period of tens of thousands of years.
  • To the Future, and Beyond: The last chapters are set farther and farther in the future — an unspecified age at least a millennium away, 30 million years in the future, and 500 million years in the future. Not to mention the Framing Device, which is set in the near future of 2031.
  • Toothy Bird: Some of the marine cormorants, having taken the niches of the dolphins that went extinct alongside humanity, have regrown the teeth of their ancient reptilian ancestors.
  • Tribal Face Paint: Early humans identify kin groups by ochre markings scrawled on their faces, hands and arms.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Baxter starts the frame story in the year 2031 (twenty-eight years after the novel's publication) with civilisation at its apex, yet simultaneously threatened by the damage it has done to the ecosystem that supports it.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?:
    • The boneheads (Neanderthals) once Homo sapiens sapiens takes over.
    • Elisha wonders if it is still rape to have non-consensual sex with a genetically non-compatible partner.
  • Where It All Began: The story begins in Late Cretaceous Montana where the fossil of Purgatorius was found, and ends at the same place 565 million years later, during the time of Ultimate, humanity's final descendant.
  • Xenofiction: Only a few chapters are about humans, the rest count as this.
  • You Dirty Rat!: A recurring motif of the chapters dealing with human evolution and descendants is the competition between primates and rodents for resources and ecological niches, with rodents being dumber but more efficient. The most feared apex predators thirty million years in the future are all rodents, such as rat-leopards and mouse-raptors, while humans have devolved back into arboreal apes, so it could be said they eventually one.
  • You Gotta Have Blue Hair: Children with unusual hair colours like blue and green are only one of the products of genetic engineering undertaken by the rich elite to create perfect-looking kids.

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