Life's Rivers
in Time

Friday, March 11th, 2005

Dr. Peter

University of Washington
Peter Ward turns his attention reluctantly away from the asteroid collision that killed all the dinosaurs and instead focuses on a much older extinction event. As it turns out, the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago dwarfs the dino's 65-million-year-old Cretaceous-Tertiary armageddon. Ward's description is not a dry accounting of the fossil discoveries leading to this conclusion, but rather an intimate, first-person account of some of his triumphs and disappointments as a scientist. He draws a nice parallel between the Permian extinction and his own rather abrupt in research focus, revealing the agonizing steps he had to take to educate himself about a set of prehistoric creatures about which he knew almost nothing.
Peter D. Ward is Professor of geological sciences, Professor of zoology, and Curator of paleontology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Professor Ward currently chairs an international panel on the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction and served as Editor for the recently published volume Global Catastrophes in Earth History, which was sponsored by the National Academy of Science and NASA. He was elected as a Fellow of the California Academy of Science in 1984, and has been nominated for the Schuchert Medal, an award of the Paleontological Society.

Dr. Ward is Senior Councilor of the Paleontological Society. He was recently named Gallager Professor of Geology at the University of Calgary and was awarded an Affiliate Professorship at the California Institute of Technology.
Dr. Ward’s latest book, with illustrator Alexis Rochman, is Future Evolution (W. H. Freeman, 2002). Dr. Ward has also written other books on evolution and mass extinctions, and has been involved with many radio and television features. Since earning his Ph.D. in 1976, he has published more than 80 scientific papers dealing with these topics. His book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (Copernicus Books), co-authored with Donald Brownlee, was published in 2000.

Several times in the distant past, catastrophic extinctions have swept the Earth, causing more than half of all species -from single-celled organisms to awe-inspiring behemoths -to suddenly vanish and be replaced by new life forms. Today the rich diversity of life on the Earth is again in grave danger -and the cause is not a sudden cataclysmic event but rather humankind´s devastation of the environment. Is life on our planet teetering on the brink of another mass extinction? In this absorbing new book, acclaimed paleontologist Peter D. Ward answers this daunting question with a resounding yes. Elaborating on and updating Ward´s previous work, The End of Evolution, Rivers in Time delves into his newest discoveries. The book presents the gripping tale of the author´s investigations into the history of life and death on Earth through a series of expeditions that have brought him ever closer to the truth about mass extinctions, past and future. First describing the three previous mass extinctions -those marking the transition from the Permian to the Triassic periods 245 million years ago, the Triassic to the Jurassic 200 million years ago, and the Cretaceous to the Tertiary 65 million years ago -Ward assesses the present devastation in which countless species are coming to the end of their evolution at the hand of that wandering, potentially destructive force called Homo sapiens. The book takes readers to the Philippine Sea, now eerily empty of life, where only a few decades of catching fish by using dynamite have resulted in eviscerated coral reefs -and a dramatic reduction in the marine life the region can support. Ward travels to Canada´s Queen Charlotte Islands to investigate the extinctions that mark the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. He ventures also into the Karoo desert of southern Africa, where some of Earth´s earliest land life emerged from the water and stood poised to develop into mammal form, only to be obliterated during the Permian/Triassic extinction. Rivers of Time provides reason to marvel and mourn, to fear and hope, as it bears stark witness to the urgency of the Earth´s present predicament: Ward offers powerful proof that if radical measures are not taken to protect the biodiversity of this planet, much of life as we know it may not survive.