A history of the world in 100 natural objects

An epic BBC Radio 4 series broadcast throughout 2010 discussed the importance of 100 man-made objects from around the globe. We asked Pat Morris to compile his own selection of 100 natural objects, each of which has a wider significance than just its immediate appearance.

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A history of the world in 100 natural objects

An epic BBC Radio 4 series broadcast throughout 2010 discussed the importance of 100 man-made objects from around the globe. The chosen artefacts are all interesting in themselves, but also illustrate different aspects of human history in a wider context. 

BBC Wildlife asked Pat Morris to compile his own selection of 100 natural objects, each of which has a wider significance than just its immediate appearance. From cow pats to coconuts, they tell a fascinating story about our evolving relationship with the natural world.

 

1 Human brain

Nothing has had a greater impact on the natural world than the human brain. It evolved from a simpler primate brain, enabling us to use rational thought to organise our lives, defend ourselves against predators and avoid danger.

It meant that we did not need to evolve physical defences such as large claws or teeth.

The human brain has millions of nerve cells, linking sensory organs to our limb and body muscles, and it processes data at high speedto instruct our bodies what to do.

The brain is also capable of abstract thought and controls speech and writing, sophisticated forms of communication that make it possible for us to change the world – and even destroy it or visit other planets. No other animal ever did that.

 

2 Arthropod exoskeleton

Arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans and their relatives) have become highly successful. Some are very numerous, but none is very big. Yet science-fiction films often depict giant creepy-crawlies conquering our world.

It’s impossible! Arthropods have an external skeleton and must moult it to grow, so are weak and immobilised until a larger one forms and hardens. In other words, they cannot get bigger than the maximum survivable size without a skeleton, and, as a result, the largest spiders and insects weigh less than a small rat.

 

3 Baleen plate

Whales in the suborder Mysticeti have100 or so of these tough but flexible structures hanging from their upper jaws. They scoop up massive mouthfuls of seawater, then use their tongues to forceit out through the baleen plates, trapping plankton.

Thus, the world’s largest animals have no need for the teeth so characteristic of most other mammals.

Baleen was highly valued for providing ‘springy’ support in all kinds of goods, from umbrella stays to corsets. It fetched high prices, contributing to the growth of a huge whaling industry. However, by the early 20th century (due in part to the invention of plastics) it was no longer the most valuable product of the whale harvest, but a waste product instead.

 

4 Ammonite fossil 

Ammonites were once among the most abundantof all marine creatures. They inhabited the last chamber of their coiled shells, the other chambers providing buoyancy as they drifted on the current to catch fish. Today, their fossils are found worldwide, reflecting their great success as a group of animals.

Ammonites survived for tens of millions of years, yet they all died out 65 million years ago. How could such a widespread group suddenly go extinct? Many scientists think that it was due to a meteor colliding with the Earth. Maybe we should take the ammonites’ fate more seriously: their intricate fossilised shells are a reminder that it might just happen again.

 

5 Chicken’s egg

Domestication of the Indian junglefowl has led to this species becoming the world’s most numerous, useful and abused bird. It can convertgrains and debrisinto valuable eggs and meat, but industrial chicken production has given rise to a major debate about animal welfare standards.

 

6 Root nodule

Bacteria in the nodules on the roots of clover and other ‘legumes’ take nitrogen from the air and enrich the soil. These plants have long been grown as a simple way to boost crop yields.

 

7 Scallop shell

Coastal peoples have eaten marine molluscs for millennia, but nowadays the scallop shell also stands as a reminder of how easily scallop-dredging fleets can destroy seabed ecosystems.

 

8 Yeast

Saccharomyces cerevisiae has played a vital part in human history: it reacts with starches and sugars to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol, a process harnessed to make bread and alcoholic drinks. The many other uses of yeast now extend to the manufacture of biofuels.

 

9 Pearl

Pearls form when bivalve molluscs deposit shell-lining material around an irritant ‘seed’ in their shell. Carl Linnaeus was the first to explain this process, using European freshwater mussels, and in the 1750s he proved that it couldbe stimulated artificially.

The subsequent history of pearl cultivation reveals our unrivalled ability to tinker with natural processes as we see fit.

 

10 Seabird guano

Peru’s mid-19th century golden age, the ‘Guano Era’, was built almost entirely on the profits from dealing in dung. This smelly natural resource consisted of seabird droppings harvested at coastal breeding colonies and then shipped abroad as fertiliser.

 

11 Loaf of bread

Bread made from wheat, a selectively bred member of the grass family first cultivated upto 10,000 years ago, is one of the most important human foods. To produce it, we have replaced forests and wetlands with enormous wheatfields of little useto wildlife.

 

12 Ice crystal

The unique physical properties of H2O are both creative and destructive. Water expands as it freezes, and when plant fluids freeze they burst cell walls, which is why frosts kill the majority of plants. Expansion also results in a lower density, so ice floats, enabling fish to survive the winter unscathed.

 

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