From: LARRY KLAES (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Mon Feb 25 2002 - 11:08:30 PST
'FUTURE EVOLUTION': ASTEROIDS ASIDE, WE'RE NOT VULNERABLE
>From The Seattle Times, 22 February 2002
'Future Evolution': Asteroids aside, we're not vulnerable
By David B. Williams
Special to The Seattle Times
Five times in Earth's 4.5 billion-year history, some natural event, such as
an asteroid impact, climate change or changes in sea level, has led to the
mass deaths of more than half of all plants and animals.
After each catastrophe, life roared back, evolving from what scientists call
recovery fauna into greater numbers of species than before. One such massive
extinction 200 million years ago led to the Age of Dinosaurs, which gave way
to the Age of Mammals, the 65-million-year-long period that our species
dominates at present.
Many scientists believe that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction.
They cite evidence that the number of species going extinct on the planet at
present rivals or surpasses any past event. They place the blame squarely on
our shoulders and warn that we must change how we treat the planet.
University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward has been one of these
advocates. In his last book, "Rivers of Time," he effectively examined mass
extinctions and humanity's preeminent role in the process, and clearly
showed that we are in the midst of an unparalleled die-off of species. Ward,
however, has changed his theme; he no longer thinks we are in the midst of a
mass extinction. Instead, we have moved past the Age of Mammals into what he
calls the Age of Humanity.
His most recent book, "Future Evolution: An Illuminated History of Life to
Come" (Times Books, $35) describes his way of viewing the world. He argues
that we have passed through the most consequential phase of this sixth mass
extinction - the elimination of many birds and the great beasts of the last
ice age - and have entered a phase that will eliminate smaller, more
localized species, as well as wild varieties that we consume. In addition,
islands, whether natural or artificial, such as national parks or habitats
surrounded by a sea of humanity, will face the next round of species
He also observes that the recovery of many fauna and flora are now in place,
too. They all share a similarity, the ability to live with humans. This
includes domesticated plants and animals and the "weeds" of the world, such
as rats, dandelions and starlings. They will form the seeds of future
What will this future be like? Ward predicts fewer large animals and less
diversity, mostly because we have carved the present habitat into spaces too
small for the bigger beasts. Offshoots of genetic engineering may lead to
unusual plants and animals, and weeds may evolve into superweeds, all able
to exploit the "niches and corners" of our world. In the future, our
descendants might find carnivorous dandelions, flying snakes, raptorial
crows or swimming pigs.
He also believes that "humanity is functionally extinction-proof." Neither
disease, nor war, nor catastrophic climate change will do us in. We will be
here until the very end, although we may see changes through the
proliferation of potentially heritable behavioral disorders, or some joining
of humans and machines. A main concern is that an asteroid may hit the
planet, but even that will probably not kill all of our species, and those
that survive will flourish again.
Ward makes a leap in this book, but one backed by compelling and
thought-provoking evidence. Throughout his career, he has focused on
extinction and evolution, and he shares numerous examples to illustrate how
the past gives insights into the present.
He has produced a thesis that will surely cause many people to re-evaluate
humanity's role on the planet, as well as conservation issues and genetic
engineering. He continues to show that he is one of the most intriguing
writers about extinction and evolution. One other key aspect of this book is
the inclusion of artist Alexis Rockman's futuristic paintings. He fleshes
out many of Ward's ideas in colorful and whimsical depictions. Their
addition makes this fine book that much more enjoyable.
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company
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