An authoritative history of our planet’s evolution.
Paleontologist Novacek (Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia, 2001, etc.), science provost at the American Museum of Natural History, seeks to help readers understand Earth’s past, the rise of the modern ecosystem and why human beings must act now to stem the damage they are inflicting on the environment. The world as we know it emerged 100 million years ago, he writes, with the appearance of the first flowering plants in the time of the dinosaurs (the Cretaceous period). Drawing on his own field work and recent discoveries in the fossil record, he describes in rich detail the biological processes that gave rise to the lush biota of the modern world. Pollination, for example, has produced wondrous flora in places from Sayreville, N.J., which has yielded fossilized plant parts from the Cretaceous, to present-day Vietnam, where forests and marshes harbor nearly 900 identified species of orchids. About 65 million years ago, he writes, the early flowering world was devastated when a Mount Everest–sized rock traveling at 22,000 miles per hour crashed into the Yucatan. The thermal blast kept temperatures at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit for hours and led to the mass extinction of 70 percent of land and sea species, including the dinosaurs. The greatest subsequent threat to biodiversity has been Homo sapiens, who appeared seven million years ago, began cultivating crops and have increasingly damaged the planet ever since through land degradation, overexploitation, invasive species and pollution. This overlong book will appeal especially to readers who share his fascination with the minutiae of biological connections: “nearly nine hundred bird species (including three hundred hummingbirds!) are pollinators.” The author also duly notes that we have the capacity but may lack the will and international leadership to slow the planet’s biological decline.
Dense, but useful and up-to-date.