Seeing may not always mean believing, but it helps. Especially when the object is big, important, and embedded in a good story. People who might otherwise doubt the reality of dinosaurs nonetheless have the bones and the movies to help persuade them. As do those who may still doubt our descent from apes. The story of King King may not convince them, but it makes an argument: the giant reptiles are followed by the giant ape who succumbs to a woman and to the modern city. Popular culture loves fossils, giants, and a tragic romance
The trouble is that what we think of as fossils—old bones, mosquitoes trapped in amber, hardened bits of plants—date back no more than 600 million years. That leaves three billion more years before that, six times further into the past, with no familiar evidence to vouch for it. For there were no animals or plants during those billions. There were only microbes, single cells reproducing, clumping together sometimes, like their descendants today in our gut. Little wonder that those eons are never the backdrop for any saga of the bacteria and archaea, No bones from which to reconstruct giants, no fossils to serve as relics to fire the imagination.
Or almost none.
Start by searching for the oldest rocks. Try Australia, Greenland, or South Africa to find the ones that formed four billion years ago. Slice them thin, put them under a microscope, look for microfossils, tiny creatures’ cell walls that have mineralized into tough material. And look for chemical smears of carbon or the products of the earliest photosynthesis.
Elsewhere look for petrified stromatolites, the layered habitats of colonies of bacteria that filtered sea water for nutrients as far back as 3.5 billion years.
Or look for bands of rust in ancient rocks. Such rust means iron and oxygen, abundant oxygen given off by bacteria as a waste product, enough of it two billion years ago to poison the atmosphere for bacteria that couldn’t tolerate it and then make it a necessity for those microbes that could.
But could the tiny remains and the odd colors and chemicals that you might find, ancient though they are, actually become the stuff of museum exhibits and monster movies? Could they find their place in popular culture as both entertainment and subtle education, as dinosaurs and apes have?
I think so. It’s not difficult to imagine exhibits of interactive, oversized ancient microbes. Or Hollywood dramas about invasive bacteria from a billion years ago, defeated in the nick of time by oxygen saturation while the heroic Caltech professor of Biogeochemistry (an actual field) explains that the godzillas of 200 million years ago were softies compared to the early microbes that thrived in volcanic vents.
Then our sense of the marvels of our ancestors would reach back through the full history of life.