Rivers in Time: The Search for Clues to Earth's Mass Extinctions

Rivers in Time: The Search for Clues to Earth's Mass Extinctions

Rivers in Time: The Search for Clues to Earth's Mass Extinctions

Rivers in Time: The Search for Clues to Earth's Mass Extinctions


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.


They say you cannot go home again. But sometimes life throws a curveball; redemption is not just a theoretical exercise. Here I am given the chance to return to a previous work, add and subtract things, and bring theories and discoveries up to date. and to change style, too. Time passes, science advances, people change. Writers see things differently. Compare Layla, Eric Claptons original electric version, with Layla, 20 years later, acoustic. Same lyrics, different song. Less raucous, but still personal. and so too with this book.

In 1991 and 19921 wrote a book about mass extinctions to be called The Third Event. the central theme was the possibility that we have entered a Modern mass extinction, using the past as evidence. It was retided The End of Evolution. the concept that we are entering a Modern mass extinction was not new at the time but still novel, and later the subject of books by Niles Eldredge, David Quammen, Richard Leaky, and Roger Lewin, among others. It is a topic returned to repeatedly by Jared Diamond and E. O. Wilson.

The book garnered critical praise, and although it was no longer conventionally available after 1997, it clearly still lived, as judged by the stream of communication that arrived for years after. Here the book has been resurrected fully and its science updated with interesting new findings that have appeared in print in the decade since I wrote The Third Event. Those familiar with The End of Evolution will find substantial changes, including the addition of two new chapters . . .

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