Jordan Collver, an illustrator and science communicator in the U.K., was thinking about Darwin—specifically, about our inability to conceptualize the vast stretches of time over which evolution unfolds. “The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years,” Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species. “It cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.”
Perhaps, Collver thought, we could use a visual aid. And in the video above, he provides a memorable one.
Collver used a series of illustrations to show the slow-changing morphology of the ancient quadruped Pakicetus, as millions of years of aquatic adaptation shapes the land mammal into the modern sperm whale. This version is shortened considerably from the original, which runs 10 minutes and is an uncanny experience all its own.
A large, dog-sized mammal that lived around 50 million years ago near a shallow sea in what today is Pakistan, Pakicetus is the earliest known relative of whales and dolphins. It is not technically a direct forbearer of the modern sperm whale, though they would have shared a common ancestor. But given this is a contemplation of the nature of evolution over time and “that we don't know exactly what those ancestors looked like,” Collver said, “I use the known species as stand-ins as they would have likely been quite similar and thus function as plausible intermediates.”
Collver hopes to one day illustrate more evolutionary lineages, perhaps even the entire branching tree of life. Let’s hope he finds the time.