13 September 2018

A New History of Life, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink

Posted by Callan Bentley

Yesterday, I finished listening to the audiobook version of A New History of Life, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink (2016). This book is only a couple of years old, and takes as its topic ‘the modern perspective’ on life’s long history on Earth, using the latest insights available. It aims to debunk old hypotheses that don’t stand up to new data, and to expand the purview of life’s reign on Earth beyond the Phanerozoic and flesh out its Precambrian details. It also argues for expanding life’s purview beyond Earth itself – both way back when with a planetary perspective on why they think life began on Mars, and also for the future, as they forecast the eventual demise of planet Earth to due the inevitable hostility that comes with solar evolution. Another major focus is on ‘greenhouse mass extinctions,’ the principal subject of another Ward book I consumed recently, Under a Green Sky. Ward and Kirschvink put true polar wander into Earth’s history along with the Snowball Earth glaciations, and they suggest that the first of these was unleashed by the CO2 drawdown associated with the O2 buildup of the Great Oxygenation Event – the first of ten (not five) mass extinctions in the record of life on our planet. This is a book that really emphasizes oxygen’s role in steering the fate of organisms, both positively and negatively. The authors invoke oxygen time and again as they discuss bird air sacs, dinosaur eggs, and big Carbonifeous dragonflies. Ward and Kirschvink manage to summarize and synthesize a tremendous amount of insights from the past few decades, including papers from their own careers and fields of interest, and others that are outside their professional wheelhouses, but that they gleefully delve into in their book. This is a jargon-heavy book, so it’s not going to be as useful to a novice as to someone like themselves – a professional interested to see what the current thinking is on everything that’s being presented in all those GSA meeting sessions that you don’t have time to get to. I found it an impressive work and I’m grateful to the authors for compiling it all in one place. That said, I don’t think I would use it as a Historical Geology textbook because of the high level of its writing – it assumes a fairly substantial incoming knowledge base for its readers, and pulls no punches when it comes to taxonomy or biogeochemistry. Another, minor, note: if you read it, go for the paper book version rather than the audiobook. I listened to the Audible version of it, and I lost several mm of enamel off my teeth from gnashing them every time the narrator mispronounced a word. The audio narration really could have used some “p(ear) review” before being published!