A timeline through the history of life on land

Walk Through the evolution of life on land in le Jardin des Plantes:

What if the gardens of Buffon and Lamarck changed into a timeline where 1 meter is 1 million years?
“Le Jardin des Plantes” in Paris mainly houses the Grande Gallerie de l’Évolution, the Mineralogy Museum, the Paleontology Museum and the Entomology Museum.
In addition to the gardens there is also a small zoo and a Mexican and Australian hothouse. The public garden in the center is 480 m long. It is also 480 millions of years ago that life appeared on land. The garden starts with a statue of Lamarck and ends with a statue of Buffon. They first developed a theory of evolution though it was a linear and progressive line towards a predictable end result: Humans.


In his book “Basin and Range” John Mc Phee first introduces us to notions of “Deep Time” and “Ceaseless Motion” as the two primary aspects defining geology.
Geological time is actually the foundation on which evolution is allowed to unfold. However this immensity far surpasses human understanding. Numbers can only say so much.

“If you don’t buy 4.2 Billion years, you don’t buy evolution”
Richard Dawkings

The 5 Carrés of le Jardin des plantes mesure a total of 480 m. The first plant life on land appeared at the beginning of the Ordovician Period, about 480 million years ago.

We can now create a timeline where 1m equals 1 million years.
We are in the middle of an Ice-Age... But how many among us are aware of it?
Bounding with the climatic past of our earth seems more relevant than ever: The 4 ice ages that shaped our landscapes, the 5 Great extinctions that shaped life on it.

We can go as much in depth as we want, it is a lot of information but we will have 480 meters to tell the story...By the aspect of the ground we can show which parts of this long timeline are cooler periods and which are warmer.

Average global temperature fluctuations

Atmospheric CO2 over time (x1000 ppm)

What are the causes of climate change, in the present and in the past? How and why has the chemical composition of our atmosphere changed over the course of time? What were the consequences for life on earth?

We see the correlation between CO2 and the temperature of our planet. CO2 is not always the main cause for global warming but it plays a central role in the regulation of earth’s temperature.

Athmospheric CO2 and global temperatures side by side

Continental drift

Our ancestors didn’t swim in the same seas we swim in today... The light of the sun doesn’t reflect the same way on water and land, so taking part in defining the climate of the planet.
In each garden a globe will be showing the “face” of the earth at that time. We can finally place the great lost continents of Pangaea Gondwana, Laurasia and the Thys sea... We can understand why oil is found in so much quantity in the Middle East. Only at the very end can we start to recognise the known continants of Africa and South America.

How can we get a hold on deep time? How can a species only 200.000 years old fit 480.000.000 years in its brain?
Maybe by letting the world around us speak for us. Often without us knowing it we are surrounding ourselves, in our cities, gardens and forests with living species that belong to so called Divisions that have developed their characteristic biological mechanism hundreds of millions of years before us. They are called: Living fossils.

Focusing on one kingdom in particular: Plants, we will let these witnesses testify the great story of their life on land.

Like the “elders” they are living quietly on the background but they can tell us where we come from.

Our ancestors on land: Who are we and where do we come from?

Can we let our ancestry line speak to us about Deep Time? We need to be conscious this is only a small part of the whole story. One “twig” back to an earlier ocean ancestor and not in any way the whole story of evolution.

We will put the cliché of the standing up monkey back into his original context: At the end of a 480 meter evolutionary line, and in an ever changing environment.

Even though the garden is still essentially linear with humanity standing at the end as an end result the idea of evolutionary progress towards a predictable end result will seem petty in the presence of so much time and continuous transformation.

Learning that 99.99% isn’t our time, that we come right at the end as an accidental afterthought, a tiny little twig on this enourmously arborescent bush of life which regrown from seed wouldn’t grow that little twig again that’s the geological revolution.

Stephen Jay Gould

The overall design of the park will be respected. Each “carré” will keep its outline. In each “carré” will be hidden a real size sculpture of one of our ancestors.

This park gives us an idea about how long the earth has been around, and even this story is only a small part: If we would want to tell the whole story we would need 8 of these parks !

This is a humbling experience but should also be empowering: We are directly connected to all this vastness.

“We are here by chance variation followed by non-random survival. That’s all there is to it. That, and an enormous amount of time.“

Richard Dawkings

It is important for people to understand the living fossils are very rare exceptions of plants that have survived the 5 great extinctions. They will be accompanied by sculptures that are reconstructions of extinct trees and plants like giant horsetails or calamites.

This timeline should also be put into a larger context to show everything we are not showing.
We easily misunderstand evolution: Mosses and ferns are just as “evolved” as sunflowers, however we can place them on the timeline to the moment in history where they developed their characteristic biological mechanisms... Ferns do not produce wood, they don’t have protected seeds, or flowers or fruit. These biological features would only arise much later in time.

Instead of showing the entire arborescent bush of life we are only showing a few representatives along the green and the red line.

We are here only depicting an infinitesimal small part of the history of life on earth. Evolution is not the story of how apes became humans, but by showing the overwhelmingly familiar picture in a bigger context we have a stage to tell a story.
A story about changing environments, about unimaginably vast stretches of time and about continuous adaptations to an ever changing planet.

What are we learning from evolution? “Survival of the fittest”? But what about cooperation, patience, creativity, resilience, and diversity? These are notions very deeply embedded in evolution just as much as competition.