The asteroid streaks across the
sky like a fiery messenger from the Gods. As the sonic boom hits, small lizards
scurry for cover but some of the larger dinosaurs barely look up from their grazing.
Seconds later it heads out of the atmosphere into deep space, like a stone skipping
off the surface of a pond.
Itís been a close call. The incoming
rock was the size of a large mountain. If it had been traveling a bit faster, or
if the Earth had traveled slightly less far in its orbit, the asteroid would have
hit head-on, causing utter devastation. Large creatures would have been killed almost
instantly, and debris flung up into the atmosphere would have dimmed the Sun and
disrupted the food chain, killing many more species. Instead, the Earth and its
inhabitants shrug and continue their day.
Sixty five million years pass. The
dinosaurs diversify and continue their eons of dominance. Some learn to hunt cooperatively
and invent simple social structures. Others develop metabolisms to deal with extremes
of climate and they expand their range on the planet. Mammals find successful evolutionary
niches in the rainforest, but they have to survive by stealth and speed, so they
donít evolve past shrews and lemurs. Primates never emerge. As a result, Earth has
no apes and no humans.
Instead, the most advanced animals
live in the oceans, where they are immune from most fluctuations in the climate.
Trapped in coastal regions by the success of the reptiles, some mammal lines gradually
return to the water where they originated. New species emerge in the oceans. Driven
by population pressure, they develop increasingly sophisticated adaptive strategies.
The most successful of these creatures eclipse even whales and dolphins.
Earthís alpha species is descended
from the giant octopus and is almost perfectly adapted to an aquatic life. It has
no natural enemies, uses communal sensing and it lives in fluid social groups several
thousand strong. Individual members of the species have cognitive skills, they experience
a rich range of emotions, and theyíre aware of their mortality. The cohort transmits
knowledge from generation to generation. The alpha species has appendages that can
manipulate tools, but has no need to venture far from the water. As a result, these
animals will never build telescopes and wonder about the vast universe beyond the