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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shall long endure?, 18 Feb 2005
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Future Evolution: An Illuminated History of Life to Come (Hardcover)
Peter Ward's research into life's history of extinctions inevitably displays recoveries. Evolution's long, sometimes tortuous course, is necessarily spotted with species' demise and replacement. In this book he is given the opportunity to cast his palaeontologist's eye into the future. With many studies bemoaning the likelihood of the human species following the dodo and the dinosaur, Ward posits a diverging view. In this charming, and stunningly illustrated study, he uses evidence from past extinctions to paint some scenarios for the future.
Ward's career and credentials rule out this book being a light speculation with enticing graphics. Those looking for a titillating or exotic glimpse into a possible future here will be disappointed. Ward understands evolution and the morphology of living things. Having studied the fossils with care, he knows what pointers suggest natural selection's likely course. He also understands how environment affects how animals survive. As a result, this "prediction" spends much more ink on past life and its losses than he does glimpsing into a vague future. It also results in that glimpse having greater validity than some of the works speculating on forecasting life.
Life, he reminds us, established body plans and habits within certain constraints. Once four limbs became the norm, even extinctions didn't result in new experiments. Large animals retained the basic plan. So, therefore, will future life. A pair of eyes, forward for predators and on the sides for prey species emerged continuously. We can expect the same tomorrow. Of far more importance, Ward feels, is whether the large fauna that preceded humanity will return. Not a chance. Small and medium-sized mammals will be the rule, although the likelihood of much larger rats and pigs, both exquisite scavengers, is likely. There may be more avian species. His speculation about flying toads might be the high point of the book.
In what may be a surprise to many is Ward's dismissal that, although we have driven - and are driving - many species into extinction, it will be humans who persist for many more millenia. And persist nearly unchanged. The human body plan is well established and ensconced in every useable niche. There is little selection pressure to change us. The doom-sayers predicting the loss of habitat will elimate us along with those we've destroyed are thus refuted. We are simply too adaptable to wither away unmourned. One of our adaptations is the creation of "new" species through domestication. Horses, cows, pigs and dogs have been bred by us to thrive in the environments we've created for them. So long as we and they are mutually dependent, we will be able to continue with this altered food base. Native species may disappear, but humans and pigs will march together into the "unknown country".
Ward's text and Rockman's excellent graphic renditions make this book an eye-opening experience. Neither are taking highly imaginative flights of fancy, but projecting the lessons of paleontology from the past to the future. While it's easy to argue over many points Ward makes, his logic and science are irrefutable. The book is worth your attention. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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