Decades later, Dixon says his book was not an attempt to predict the future, rather it was an exploration of all the possibilities of the natural world. “Popular-level books on evolution, even though it’s not intentional, seem to suggest evolution is something that happened in the past,” he says. “That’s not the case at all. Evolution is taking place today, it will continue to take place well into the future, long after we are gone.”
While Dixon’s book was a work of fiction, most biologists agree that millions of years from now Earth will be a very different place. “I think it’s gonna look and feel like an alien planet,” says Athena Aktipis, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University.
Whatever evolves will feel foreign and unlikely to us today – just as our current world, dominated by mammals, would have seemed improbable from the perspective of the dinosaur era. So, what might life look like in the future? What creatures could develop in, say, 100 million years, given what we know about life on Earth and the principles of evolution?
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Let’s start by zooming back millions of years to a much earlier era of life on our planet. In the Cambrian explosion, some 540 million years ago, the Earth became populated by a whole host of “weirdo” and “cartoonish” creatures, according to Jonathan Losos, an evolutionary biologist at Washington University in St Louis.
“The Burgess Shale [in Canada] was inhabited by a veritable bestiary of the bizarre,” he writes in his book called Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution. One animal, Hallucigenia, with its thin, tube-like body covered in rows of enormous spines, and stick-like clawed appendages was “similar to something out of a Futurama episode”.