One Long Experiment: Scale and Process in Earth History

By Ronald E. Martin | Go to book overview

8
Extinction

Old men must die, or the world would grow mouldy, would only breed
the past again
. —Alfred Lord Tennyson, Becket

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat,
and summer and winter … shall not cease
. —Genesis 8:22.

E. O. Wilson (1992), in his highly acclaimed book The Diversity of Life, estimated—optimistically—that the number of species doomed each year is 27,000, each day 74, and each hour 3. Wilson’s estimates are sobering. Briggs (1994) calculated that at current rates of extinction, 3/4 of all terrestrial species will disappear within 200 years. We are in the midst of a mass extinction that, if it continues unabated, will surpass the greatest extinctions of the earth’s history (Kauffman, 1994). Isn’t it obvious? Doesn’t the earth’s biosphere seem to be collapsing before our very eyes? Probably not, unless one lives in a tropical rain forest or near a coral reef, the world’s two most diverse ecosystems, which have been affected disastrously by human activity.

Extinction is normal, though. Raup (1991) calculated that over 99.9 percent of all the species of organisms that have ever existed have become extinct. If this were not so, speciation probably would have stopped many millions of years ago because the earth’s surface would have been saturated with species. Without extinction, much fewer evolutionary opportunities would have occurred because all of the habitats and niches (ecospace) would have been filled long ago. Extinction breaks the species-rich hegemony of previously existing taxa (Jablonski, 1989); in effect, extinction produces history by altering the course of life (see Knoll, 1989, for plankton).

So why should one care about the present mass extinction? Because

-186-

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One Long Experiment: Scale and Process in Earth History
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Prologue - Methodology and Proof in Historical Science 1
  • 1 - Scale, Measurement, and Process- An Introduction 9
  • 2 - The Nature of the Stratigraphic Record- Curds and Whey 24
  • 3 - Random Walks in Muck 53
  • 4 - Time and Taphonomy 72
  • 5 - Biological Processes Inferred from the Fossil Record 95
  • 6 - Cycles and Secular Trends 132
  • 7 - Energy and Evolution 163
  • 8 - Extinction 186
  • Epilogue- the Nature of Nature 212
  • References 217
  • Index 253
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