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Rivers in Time: The Search for Clues to Earth's Mass Extinctions Hardcover – 3 Jun 2015


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The pace of species extinction provoked by human rapacity may well now equal the rate of loss in the great mass extinction events that punctuate the history of life. We need a broad perspective on this most portentous of all ecological and evolutionary disasters--and who better than a paleontologist to provide it. Peter Ward ranks with the very best in this most fascinating profession, and his book should be read by all thinking and caring people. -- Stephen Jay Gould [One of] the science books every self-taught genius should have read this year. Discover Rivers in Time is rich in information and ideas... masterfully portrays for nonpaleontologists how data are collected from the fossil record and then used to test various concepts. The section on the modern mass extinction is superb, and it should concern us all... Highly recommended. -- M.A. Wilson Choice

About the Author

Peter D. Ward is professor of geological sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of many books, including Rare Earth, In Search of Nautilus, The End of Evolution (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award), and On Methuselah's Trail.

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Amazon.com: 9 reviews
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Mass extinction update-an elusive gang of killers. 26 Jan. 2002
By Roger McEvilly (the guilty bystander) - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I really like Peter Ward's books. He presently serves as my 'geological advisor', as I also am a geologist. He is not as dogmatic as some within the field of mass extinction, since he recognises it is now becoming increasingly obvious that in most mass extinctions, these ancient 'killers' did not act alone. Early arguments in the debate of mass extinction, especially the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K/T) event, were in the form of either/or, (eg volcanism versus asteroid/comet impact), rather than one big event following and/or combining with another.
The old argument "one or the other" is now often questioned on the basis of statistics itself. You could just as well turn this logic around-if it so happened, that once in a proverbial blue moon in geological time (which is really long) TWO OR MORE events occurred at roughly the same time-wouldn't this produce a really big mass extinction??. Maybe to exterminate a large number of species against the backdrop of reasonable resistance of life to widespread extinction, more than one major event has to occur. This sort of scenario is supported, for example, by the many impact craters which have been dated and which have produce no mass extinctions. This is the general view espoused by this book.
The arguments over statistics is not irrelevant here. Researchers have indeed found that what may appear to be gradual decline in the geological record can be sudden, and vice versa, simply due to such an overlooked thing, for example, as 'sampling' error. For big animals such as dinosaurs it is particularly problematic, because sampling bias occurs in level of exposure, type of rock and degree of preservation for what is already a rarely preserved animal. The geological record is baised in what it tends to preserve, and what it tends to not show. Stratigraphical studies have shown for some time, for example, that vast amounts of time can transpire in a sedimentary sequence, with nothing to show for it, basins are often very dynamic and problematic in this respect. "Thickness" does not often equate wih equivalent time, even in 'quiet' environments. The upshot of all this, and detailed dates on the Decaan Traps for example, have shown clearly, that increased volcanism, climate changes, and at least some general species decline was occurring *before* the clay layer which was produced by impact at the 'K/T boundary'. Maybe we should expect this for 'mass extinction', to produce a real killer blow (ie mass extinction) maybe life has to be wounded first.
Peter Ward in this book focusses on four mass extinctions- the P/T, the end Triassic, the K/T, and the present. There is good evidence for similarities -in the end Permian it is suggested to be due to life adapted to ice ages, then increased volcanism and increased CO2 with hothouse, and possible sea level changes. At the K/T it was ocean changes (?), then volcanism and increased CO2, and then impact. At the present a suprisingly similar situation appears to be occurring-now it's climate change (drying of the Mediterranean, prevalence of ice ages), evolution of man (from these two possibly), and now carbon dioxide emission.
The end Triassic, along with the end Permian, are the least understood extinction events. Peter Ward takes us to the red sandstones of the Karoo (P/T), the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of Canada (end Triassic), and Soviet Georgia in the former USSR (K/T), to unravel some of these mysteries. The last portion of the book looks at the present extinction event-with man as the major influence. An extended discussion of the Hawaiian islands is given.
Peter Ward mentions that the start of the Triassic worldwide often contains redbeds, even near the poles-suggesting hothouse conditions. From my experience in New South Wales, Australia, this is true. The start of the Triassic in NSW is interesting in that it seems also utterly barren of coal-despite alot of coal through the Permian. Something happened-the organisms were all dead, apparently. There are alot of redbeds at the boundary too-hothouse conditions-even though New South Wales was near the poles at the time. It is interesting to see these sort of patterns worldwide, something strange indeed seems to have been going on at the start of the Triassic/end Permian.
One disappointment, also pointed out by others, is the lack of good diagrams, photos and the like. There are a few, but there could certainly be more. Mr Ward-rock sequences are visually interesting, as are fossils and diagrams-put a few more in please! And what about the Ordovician extinction, and others?
A good read, and a good guide to updates on extinction scenarios.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Extinction is forever 26 Nov. 2004
By Duwayne Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I've read one other book by Peter D. Ward, "The call of distant mammoths," and enjoyed it immensely, so when I saw "Rivers in time," and recognized the author's name I snatched it up right away.

The first part of this book contains condensed excerpts from earth's history, with particular emphasis on the famous and most notable extinction events found in the strata. This is preceded, and sometimes interspersed, with a brief history of geology and paleontology. Ward covers highlights relating to methods of dating sedimentary rocks using fossils, and how those techniques are anchored in radiometric dating.

Ward introduces some particularly insightful information derived from some of his own field work. This adds a nice touch, and helps the reader understand a little of the flavor associated with being a field geologist. Chapter five for example, describes some work he did along the Pacific Coast of Canada, relating to the mass extinction at the end of the Triassic period - one of the five most catastrophic extinctions during the last 500 million years.

The Triassic, Permian, Cretaceous. Ward touches on them all, at least to some extent. Part III is about the Cretaceous/Tertiary event, when the dinosaurs went extinct. Here, as in other discussions, the text isn't just about the mechanics of extinction, but draws upon many ancillary issues that add depth and flavor to the discussion. Particularly interesting is his historical discussion of the scientific debate that led to the currently accepted view that a large comet or meteorite was a major (if not the major) contributor to the Cretaceous/Tertiary event. This part of the book contains interesting tidbits of information that many arm-chair scientists will, no doubt, enjoy. One passage that I underlined was the following:

"... the pollen from normal plants found in that [New Mexico] region at the time suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by a pollen and spore assemblage made up almost completely of fern material. Ferns are well-known "disaster" species because they quickly move into and colonize disturbed landscapes, such as newly burned land."

Upon reading this I reflected upon the clear-cut that I had wandered across last year, with my horse, riding through the hills of the coast range in western Oregon. It was like a complete swath of destruction laid before me, with the shattered stumps of trees littering the landscape into the hazy distance, liberally punctuated with clumps of ferns.

I have a hunch that the real point of Ward's book is found in section IV, "The modern mass extinction." The modern mass extinction started more than 10,000 years ago, and continues unabated today. Ward argues that we are witnessing one of the largest (if not the largest) extinction events in terms of total species lost. He lists several studies, some more alarming than others, indicating that the rate of extinction is probably in the range of thousands of species per year.

Ward never really forces the conclusion that people are the cause of these extinctions, but he does present some pretty incriminating data pointing to our species as the culprit. Mostly the evidence is circumstantial. A natural paradise exists without humans, humans arrive, mass extinction ensues. It happened in Hawaii (both with the indigenous population, and later with European invaders), the America, Australia, Madagascar, New Zeeland, and so forth.

Ward also points to studies that help illustrate the complexity of extinction. Most extinctions are not caused by a single factor. And (as in the case of Madagascar) extinctions don't have to follow necessarily from hunting or otherwise deliberate killing of animals. They can (and do) happen because of habitat destruction and habitat compartmentalization and division. Something as simple as building a road through a wilderness area can be enough to tip the balance.

The cover of Ward's book shows a stark and barren landscape with dry riverbeds streaking through the sparse, brown bush. These rivers no longer run. The symbolism for extinction is deliberate. We all know that organisms and species die, but we still morn their passage. And when they die an untimely death, when their demise could have been prevented, it leaves a bitter taste of remorse and regret.

I remember when I first learned about extinction. I was a kid, and my mother told me there used to be this flightless bird, about the size of a turkey or a chicken, and how it no longer existed because people hunted it to extinction. I remember the deep sense of remorse that I felt - cheated is a good way to describe it - at the fact I could only see this amazing creature as a stuffed exhibit in a museum. Later, when school kids laughed about how the "stupid" dodo had gone extinct, I felt a shudder of shame for my species.

As I read this book I found my self repeatedly wishing that the knowledge found between its covers could be imparted to every one of the politicians responsible for safeguarding what's left of our environment, and realizing in bitter disappointment that, with the election of radical Christian fundamentalists who now control the Congress and White House, the rush toward extinction has only shifted into a higher gear. As I tell my kids, enjoy the wilderness you see. Climb these glaciers, breath deeply the mountain air, because it is quickly disappearing. I'd call Ward's book valuable and informative, and hopefully it will spur a few to try and stop the onslaught, but ultimately I found the story depressing. Extinction really is forever.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
More a fan of Rare Earth 14 Mar. 2002
By Atheen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found myself greatly of mixed feelings as I read Ward's Rivers in Time. It seemed as though he was having difficulty identifying the audience to whom he wished to direct himself--or with a desire to appeal to everyone There are threads of autobiographical "adventure" narrative, geological/paleontological field description, extinction theory--including the tried and true KT boundary extinction of the dinosaurs--a discussion of the quaternary extinction of the North American megafauna, a discussion of the Hawaiian Island biota and its extinction, and an appeal to world conscience to prevent what the author perceives as a current biological crisis.
I might see the autobiographical information as appealing to a young male reader's sense of adventure, except that I suspect there is not nearly enough of the suspense element or the do or die component. There is much build up in places, but it often leads to a feeling of anticlimax. The gentleman has definitely been a lot of interesting places, which is enviable perhaps, but I'm not sure that the majority of his readers would really relish the sometimes stultifying dullness of the environments in which the author has spent considerable time doing mind numbing work. The apparent glamour of finding fossils often obscures the painstaking labor it takes to locate and excavate them.
The descriptive passages seem to suggest a disappointed novelist. They might have been more enjoyable if they had not been in a first person format. For those who can "identify" with the heroes of fictional works when they're written in first person, this volume might be an excellent choice. Personally, the only point when I found myself getting into the spirit of the thing was when the author described the Hell Creek formation in the Fort Peck Reservoir region. Since I've done some geological/paleontological field work there myself, it brought back old memories--not all of them pleasant. (Camping in the sticky "gumbo" of the badlands in a rainy May, screening alligator scoots, triceratops frills, fish scales and duckbill bones while standing [waist]-deep in icy cold lake water leaves much to be desired by way of experiences; I`ve certainly had better.)
The description of the various outcrops illustrating extinction events was interesting. Many of them, including the Hell Creek, are in inaccessible areas. The author's chapters on the Karoo were especially good. I had heard of it before but had not read as thorough a description in other works as Ward provided in Rivers in Time. His discussion of the Georgian outcrops of the Tertiary recovery were entirely new to me.
In general his discussion of extinction was more balanced than many writers. Although he gives a large word-count to the KT extinction, he also covers the Permian event and the Quaternary die-out with some degree of thoroughness. He might have given the opposing views more of a forum, however, as he makes the situations seem pretty much cut and dried which they aren't.
Throughout the volume the reader can't help but feel there is a hidden agenda, and the final chapters produce it with Ward's appeal to public conscience over modern biota loss throughout the world. If this was his ultimate goal, I think it would have been more helpful to have had it more clear cut from the beginning. It would have tied the various chapters together a little better. I feel he did a much better job of pulling various material together, providing alternate views of events, and making an ecological statement in his earlier book Rare Earth, written with coauthor Donald Brownlee. If I was making a decision about which book to put into my personal collection, I would chose that work over the present.
15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Life Changing 16 July 2001
By Jesse Butler - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book is by far one of the best books I have ever read. I now look at life in a completely different way. I was brought up in a strict Baptist home where the Bible was the only way, after reading this book I don't dismiss God but its sure not how the Bible says it is. Peter writes this book in an informal way, which makes it very interesting; you can almost fell like you are there, taking a beginner like me into a very complicated world. I have discussed this book with others at work and found that no one that I talked to accepts evolution; they all think it's not real. I just feel so much more educated on the subject and thank Peter Ward for writing this book. It was great.
14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Disappointing 27 Aug. 2001
By Darwin's Bulldog - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title of this book suggests that we will be taken on exploratory voyage to look at the evidence for mass extinctions; this is only somewhat true. In spite of quite a lot of talk of finding fossils, the book only actually shows one. The remainig pictures disappoint. Where we are told of thin layer boundries, we get broad landscape photos; where the green to red transition marks an extinction event, we get a black and white picture where not even a change in the shade of grey is evident.
This book is more in the genre of explorer's narrative: Darwin's voyage on the Beatle, Huxley's on the Rattlesnake, or even Hooker's travels in Tibet... but there is little adventure involved. While the presentation of evidences for extinction are interesting, and the author, well, authoritative, the mixture of travel and science muddles the whole book.
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