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Transcript
Palaeontologia Electronica
http://palaeo-electronica.org
Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man
Reviewed by Sally Walker
by Michael Boulter
Columbia University Press, New York
ISBN 0-231-12836-3, 2002, 210 pp. Price: $27.00
Fables of the Deconstruction: Historical Geology Reduced to an Exponential Equation
Michael Boulter's book, Extinction: Evolution
and the End of Man is not merely a treatment of
human-induced extinctions juxtaposed against
ancient mass extinctions, but also an exposé concerning the development of the "Fossil Record 2"
database for Britain. His main thesis is that Earth is
a self-organized system, and his database can
prove that point. Michael Boulter is an evolutionary
biologist at the University of East London and the
director of the "Fossil Record 2" team, analyzing
one of the largest extinction databases in Britain,
Biodiversity on the Internet. Quixotically, Boulter
rarely mentions the history of extinction databases
that started with Jack Sepkoski (University of Chicago, USA), nor the current American paleobiology
database (The Paleobiology Database). Despite
this glaring oversight, the reader is at first tantalized to explore the connections between humans
and current extinction events. Unfortunately, this
book contains so many contradictory statements
and factual errors that it was difficult to draw any
significant conclusions. The poor writing, inflammatory remarks, and errors distract from what potentially could have been a lively discussion on
humans and how they construct and use fossil
databases. At the very least, it is a Pandora's box
of Panglossian parables aimed at the public, with
an underlying goal of
showing that scientists
(that is non-British ones),
are a rag-tag lot, out for
their own gain. His personal anecdotes take precedence, as he reveals
the nadir of his scientific
grudges and the epiphany
of his database discoveries. Sadly, humans and
extinctions somehow get
lost in his ideological
shuffle. Basically, Boulter rewrites historical geology--writing a Boulterian fable by deconstructing
earth history, based on his "feelings" rather than
actual data. If you like to read about unexpurgated
ideas that spin inside one man's mind, then this is
the book for you. However, I found most of his
comments distasteful and his lack of scholarship
odious. He does a disservice to paleobiology by
rewriting the past to fit his exponential models. I will
now review each chapter of the book, pointing out
the main ideas, the contradictory statements, and
some of the more evident spurious details.
Evolution: Extinctions and the End of Man is
composed of seven chapters. Chapter one dis-
Walker, Sally. 2003. Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man. Palaeontologia Electronica, 6:8, book review 3, 150KB;
http://palaeo-electronica.org/paleo/toc.htm
WALKER: EXTINCTION: EVOLUTION AND THE END OF MAN
cusses limited archaeological evidence for environmental change during the last 3000 years. Chapter
two briefly reviews the Cretaceous/Tertiary (Cretaceous/Paleogene) extinction. Chapter three
regresses to the violent beginning of the Earth's
formation billions of years ago. Chapter four examines disastrous extinctions of the past, focusing on
the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinctions again and the
demise of the dinosaurs. Chapter five describes
Boulter's frustrations with scientists as they wrestle
with species names. Chapter six outlines more
database challenges and the paucity of data
regarding human-induced extinctions. The last
chapter contradicts chapter six, by stating that
humans have contributed heavily to extinctions,
especially those of mammals. The thread running
through all these chapters is that Earth is a selforganized system, and that it will rebound from any
extinction. In fact, mass extinctions are good for
the Earth, and human-induced extinctions are no
exception.
The first chapter ("The Past is Not Over")
starts out at a very good clip, as it concerns
human-induced alteration of ancient landscapes.
Here, Boulter deftly interweaves archaeological
work with landscape alteration promulgated by
early human civilizations. The ancient environmental record of England is a case in point: the fossil
record of peat bogs from the British Isles describe
lush, mixed deciduous forests that were, in short
order, deforested by humans. Boulter adamantly
states that this environmental clear-cutting for
sport, accommodations, and travel would not have
occurred naturally. He then sets out to present the
irrevocable evidence and murderous trail of wanton
environmental destruction blithely committed by
humans prior to the industrial revolution. This
destruction has taken place in less than 10,000
years, a mere snap of the fingers for the immense
amount of time recorded in Earth’s multi-billion
year history. To summarize: First, humans burned
wood, then coal, and now oil, all repositories for
carbon that was laid down over the millennia in
what was previously an Earth in relative balance.
Humans have mined these resources at an exponential rate, intrinsically faster than the thousands
to millions of years it took to make these carbonrich resources in the first place. While the humble
reader may know most of this by heart, Boulter provides few reference citations for his discourse, as
he prefers to rely on "…feelings and my common
sense" (p. 18).
As one proceeds deeper into chapter one,
Boulter's earlier coherency starts to diminish.
Salient errors, obfuscatory statements, rambling
diatribes, and provincial colloquialisms start to
accumulate, and if I could graph the relative abundance of these "insights", I'd say they could be represented by an exponential curve. Examples of
salient errors presented in chapter one include: (1)
Boulter explicitly states that Sir Charles Lyell
coined the maxim, "the present is the key to the
past" and the term, "uniformitarianism" (p. 21, 38).
However, Sir Archibald Geike coined the present is
the key to the past and William Whewell coined
uniformitarianism. The concepts of uniformitarianism had their roots in the work of James Hutton, a
Scottish gentlemen and plutonist, in the late
1700's. Lyell is known for popularizing and extending Hutton’s uniformitarian ideology. (2) The Jurassic Saurischia "with hips like lizards…[that] stand
on two legs to fight other animals in the famous
Tyrannosaurus pose" (p. 26). Saurischians have, in
general, variable hip morphology, ranging from a
pubis bone pointed downward ("like lizard's hips")
or pointed back ("like bird hips"). It would be better
to put the term, "lizard-hipped" and "bird-hipped" in
quotations, as birds were actually derived from the
saurischian clade. (3) Another historical faux pas
was that Jurassic ornithischians withstood attacks
from T. rex (p. 26). Unfortunately, T. rex had not
evolved until the Cretaceous. Despite our fondness
for Jurassic Park and the cool T. rex depicted in it,
it still is a fictional movie. (4) Adding insult to injury,
figure 2.3 (p. 44) shows that ornithischians arose in
the late Paleozoic, and that the saurischians
evolved in the early Triassic. The fossil record
doesn’t contain this evidence; rather, these groups
evolved in the Middle-to-Late Triassic. (5) In the
same breath that "saurischians" and "ornithischian"
terms were used, Boulter shies away from naming
protists. This includes the "f" word, such as foraminiferan, or the "c" word, such as coccolithophorid. Because, as he explains, these
"microscopic marine plankton, [have] long names,
[that are] hard to pronounce" (p. 35-36). However,
long names that are hard to pronounce did not
deter Boulter from waxing ecstatic about aquilapolles and normapolles described later in the
chapter (p. 36). Lastly, (6) the striking description
that mammals lacked fur in the Jurassic "which
then would have made mammals’ bodies too hot"
(p. 33) is a bit puzzling. While this is a fascinating
idea, there is no evidence presented for it, especially since mammals are hirsute. If this statement
were true, then why are furry mammals alive in the
hottest deserts today? Why are these errors in
logic and fact produced in this book? It is because
Boulter prefers subjective reasoning: "...scientists
need to accept life’s beauty, and work with it like a
fairy story, changing the focus to fit the particular
2
WALKER: EXTINCTION: EVOLUTION AND THE END OF MAN
needs of the particular circumstances at different
times" (p. 22).
Chapter two ("Extinction") covers a variety of
topics, including a Boulterian fairy tale from the
British Mesozoic, the Cretaceous-Tertiary and
Permo-Triassic mass extinctions, and plate tectonics. These topics are discussed using adaptationist
rhetoric and by dissing American paleontologists
(e.g., Stephen Jay Gould, Jack Sepkoski, and
David Raup). Fortunately, the geologist Walter
Alvarez escapes Boulter’s frenzied form of Anglican imperialism, the only American scientist to survive this chapter unscathed without going verbally
extinct. Boulter begins the chapter with the idea
that children like fairy stories, and here, he could
have reminded us that good does not always triumph over evil, especially as humans gobble up
Earth’s resources. However, he fails to link chapter
one and two together. The Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, he claims in his fairy tale, were
populated by predators in the sea, and by "flying
monsters" in the skies. All other food groups were
missing. He further explains that these periods had
stable global climates and environments, and as a
consequence, these periods had limited evolution
or diversification of major organisms. Only in
Boulter's mind were the Jurassic and Cretaceous
dull, sleepy blips in the history of life. He forgets
that during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, global climate and paleogeography changed dramatically,
with the formation of a major ocean basin, the
Atlantic ocean (PaleoMap Project). Additionally,
evolution and diversification of many new types of
organisms occurred during these periods (e.g.,
birds; marine reptiles; marine invertebrates such as
scleractinian corals, rudistid clams, neogastropods;
marine protists such as the global oxygen producers, diatoms and coccolithophorids; flowering
plants; placental and marsupial mammals). Was
the Jurassic and Cretaceous peaceful and quiet
from an evolutionary standpoint? I don't think so.
A brief review provided by Boulter of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction leads one to think that
only large-sized organisms went extinct. He states
that size was very important in the extinction event,
and gives only the example that large-sized
ammonoids and dinosaurs died out. However,
there were many smaller forms of these organisms, and they also died out. But why did small
mammals survive the traumatic extinction? Boulter
claims mammals survived by "…hiding from the
heat, being protected by their own sense of exploration." I don't know about you, but when I am confronted by a conflagration, my sense of
"exploration" is not the first thing that kicks in.
Boulter next harangues American scientists for
wanting to expect the "biggest and most dramatic,
the longest and even the oldest" event. However, it
is clear that Boulter does pretty well in holding his
own with his personal "-est-fest." He quickly ends
Chapter two by segueing back to humans (a jump
of 245 million years from the Permo-Triassic
extinction!), and broaches that humans are causing
the worst extinction ever. He then asks "where are
the extinctions?" At this point in the book, we don't
know what this ending sentence means, and he
certainly doesn't explain it. The reader has to wait
until two chapters later, when we find out that there
is little data on human-induced extinctions.
Chapter three ("A System Out of Chaos") is a
chaotic mess in itself; it should have been entitled:
"A chapter in chaos". The chapter begins by discussing chaos theory (with fractals), and how this
concept was developed from physics, but then
Boulter skips among the topics of extinctions, his
database, the Galápagos Islands, punctuated equilibria, and a whole host of other free-associative
ideas. The main thesis of this chapter, I think, is
that nature is scalable to physical laws. But, at first,
Boulter denies that this is possible. For example,
he adamantly states that physics is not scalable to
nature ("...biology is not quantifiable..." and life is
"counter-entropic" because life is based on contingency; p. 59). However, by the end of the chapter,
he obviously reverses his view because he discovers that there is a remarkable fit between his fossil
data and the self-organization concepts of physics.
Not only that, but his database mimics "pink noise"
(a type of package chaos; not named after the rock
star, "Pink," regardless of what you think of her
voice).
During the rambling tussle with chaos theory,
he adds the Gaia hypothesis. However, he quickly
dismisses the Gaia hypothesis because self-organized criticality explains everything. He then provides a diatribe against another American scientist,
this time James Kirchner, who likes to measure
"big things very precisely" (p. 66) and thereby
misses all the beauty in the world. Finally we find
out what Boulter really wants to do with his "Fossil
Record 2" data: he wants to test the theory that
Earth is a self-organized system. Here, he explains
that extinctions are good: they are necessary to
retain life on planet Earth. If extinctions did not
occur, organisms would wipe out all the space and
food on the planet (p. 67; reiterated again in chapter seven). Boulter next regresses to chapter two
ideas about the recovery from extinctions (p. 67),
but abruptly stops practically mid-sentence and
expounds on how power laws applied to the "Fossil
Record 2" data mimic physical processes. He then
drops that subject, and shifts to Charles Darwin
3
WALKER: EXTINCTION: EVOLUTION AND THE END OF MAN
voyaging in the Galápagos islands, by arguing that
Darwin knew at the time that the finches were the
linchpin in his evolutionary argument. This is quite
contrary to what actually happened; once back in
England, poor Charles was attempting to sort out
his ill-labeled collections with John Gould, who recognized the importance of the finches. Boulter also
implies that Darwin knew about genetic mutations
(p. 70). What Darwin has to do with power laws,
chaos theory, fractals and mutations is not
explained.
After Darwin, Boulter uncovers the reasons
why fossil databases are important for evolutionary
analysis. He claims that Raup and Sepkoski were
the first to challenge the slow order of evolution
with their 26-million-year-old-extinction-periodicity
database. He fails to mention again that Sepkoski
was the first to put together a database to examine
Phanerozoic extinctions. Rather, Boulter's explanation for why these two put together a fossil database was to provide evidence for Niles Eldredge
and Stephen Jay Gould's theory of Punctuated
Equilibrium (p. 74). While Boulter proudly claims
that the theory of punctuated equilibrium debuted
in a paper published in the British journal, Nature,
and a follow-up paper as well, the first paper and
the initial follow-up paper were actually published
in Schopf's Models of Paleobiology (1972), and the
journal of Paleobiology (1977), respectively.
The rest of chapter three has Boulter comfortably plugging his own database. We find out that
Boulter was not granted permission to use Sepkoski’s original extinction database. Thus, Boulter
had to resort to compiling his own data mined from
oil companies. Boulter explains how the "Big Five"
extinctions are clearly seen in his diagrams (Fig.
3.5, p. 83), but they are actually not evident. The
reader must be reminded that Jack Sepkoski's data
clearly show the "Big Five" extinctions. Are we witnessing database envy? Boulter next shows that
his data fit physical power laws, such that the fossil
record is a self-organized system. Consequently,
evolution is also exponential (does that mean it's
gradual and not punctuated?). He concludes that
biological evolution has a fractal component: the
earth is one beautiful big machine that acts like a
power function. Now, what is clearly missing here
is a discussion on the quality and quantity of his
data: is the exponential rise in organisms because
Boulter lacks data from the past when compared to
the well-preserved modern record? Is there monographic bias? Is there collector or collection bias?
Are there preservational discrepancies? While
American scientists have scuffled with these topics
(i.e., Raup’s "Pull of the Recent"), it appears that
Boulter hasn't examined his data for bias.Chapter
four ("From Dinosaurs to Us") takes us back to the
Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary yet again, and the
recovery of extinction that was previously discussed in Chapter two. In this chapter, he opines
that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction was the
worst extinction: "I doubt that the Earth has ever
been bleaker than during those years, when most
living things survived in trauma and in hiding." How
could he forget about the worst extinction of all
time, the Permo-Triassic extinction? He claims the
recovery from the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction
was smooth, with the gradual unfolding exponentially of flora and fauna. Suddenly, Boulter states
that birds may be feathered dinosaurs, but more
data is needed to determine this (he fails to mention scientific papers that have settled this issue).
He says, however, that he can resolve this problem
with his database: if the three groups (i.e., ornithischians, saurischians, and birds, fig. 4.1, p. 92) are
graphed together, you can see a "close relationship" between dinosaurs and birds. If the kind
reader will ponder his graph (fig. 4.1, p. 92), and
replace the "bird" data with "mammal" data,
wouldn't you get a similar curve? Does that mean
that mammals are closely related to dinosaurs? I
don't think so. However, he likes this idea so much,
he repeats it again in the next chapter (p. 154).
The chapter then limps through the Cenozoic,
attempting to show that the Atlantic Ocean (called
the "Atlantic River", p. 98) formed during the Cenozoic, and that the lost continent of Atlantis may
have been in the Atlantic river. Boulter fails to
remind us that the majority of the Atlantic Ocean
actually formed during the Mesozoic Era. While the
Cenozoic "Atlantic River" was forming, mammals
were slowly changing through times of "deep
peace". Mammals are then quickly dropped, and
Boulter dispatches at length his research on the
Early Tertiary (Early Paleogene) of the Isle of Mull
(Scotland). From there, he jumps to the lost continent of Atlantis, using it as a metaphor for subduction (p. 111). Leaving Atlantis in the dust, he
proceeds to march through the rest of the Cenozoic, where he claims that the Oligocene was the
most peaceful and stable time ever during Earth's
history. Because of this stability, the Oligocene's
"evolutionary machine was running efficiently, in a
beautifully controlled style, every gear wheel fitting
snugly with perfect timing" (p. 112).
He fails to mention that the climate was deteriorating, causing major environmental and evolutionary change. Did he not know about the newly
formed circum-Antarctic current that jailed frigid
waters around Antarctica? Or that the warm, humid
vegetation of the Eocene/Early Oligocene gave
way to savannas? Did he not realize that there
4
WALKER: EXTINCTION: EVOLUTION AND THE END OF MAN
were extinctions in the land and the sea as the
Earth began it's plunge into ice house conditions
during this time? Obviously, he is making up his
own historical geology. I'll let you ponder what he
says about the Miocene. Finally, he ends the chapter with human-induced extinctions of large mammals in North America: "Just as the climate was
warming, in the 1840s, historical records tell us that
Red Indians began trading buffalo hide" implicating
that these "Red Indians" exterminated the buffalo
(p. 123). What Boulter fails to mention in this
biased account is that the slaughter was not from
native Americans, but from invading non-native
Americans that slaughtered not only the buffalo but
the native Americans as well. I think here, he is
confusing the megafauna extinction that occurred
12,000 years ago (and Paul Martin's elegant explanation) with the more recent slaughter of buffalo in
the 1800s by Westward advancement. Despite the
slaughter of buffalo (by-the-way, buffalo are not yet
extinct), he still claims at the end of the chapter that
all species can behave as self-organized systems.
Chapter five ("What's in a Name?") begins
with a celebration of his self-proclaimed breakthrough that evolution follows power laws and an
exponential path. He contemplates the "hidden
potential" of the techniques his group has developed. Rather than examine the types of data in his
database, Boulter circumnavigates through the history of naming organisms. What's in a name, you
ask? Well, species are the ultimate data point, and
if scientists can not come to a consensus about
what a species is, then how are species used in
databases? Interspersed among his rancorous
view of cladistics, he reveals his lack of appreciation for the government, journalists, and teachers
while attempting to point out the difference
between a classification system erected by Linnaeus to that of cladistics. Boulter next discusses
natural selection, and here we find that Boulter
thinks that evolution is way too messy to deal with.
Therefore, Boulter is justified in using the Linnean
classification system for his data, and follows the
Linnean ideology of the fixity of species. Perhaps
that is why he entitled one of the sections in this
chapter the "Building blocks of God's nature" (p.
126). He blames America for daring to replace the
Linnean hierarchy with cladistics and the PhyloCode scheme (p. 139-140, Phylocode). In fact,
these new systematics are threatening to unravel
Boulter's view of exponential growth because his
database is built on the Linnean classification system. The reason why American's developed new
systematics? He says that Americans are "more
influenced by the Internet", and that somehow this
has contributed to a new revolution in systematics
(p. 140). My question is: don’t you think it is about
time that we examine our fixation on the Linnean
hierarchy?
He deconstructs Darwinian evolution by saying that there is no stated theory of natural selection (p. 130). After all, and I quote: "biologists don’t
have theories the way physicists do. Instead Darwin expressed a grand idea as lots of observations
and often anecdotal interpretations…" How can the
British Boulter forget about Darwin's experiments?
or Darwin's arduous collection of facts? Perhaps
Boulter doesn't want to admit that evolution takes
place; rather, he prefers to build his nest comfortably in the boughs of the Linnean hierarchical tree.
Fortunately, Boulter admits that he never understood natural selection, because he said that Darwin and most biologists of the twentieth century
made little connection between DNA and ecology
(p. 131). Did Boulter forget that Darwin was resting
comfortably in a grave at Westminster Abbey when
DNA was discovered? To Boulter's credit however,
he had an epiphany about natural selection (p.
131): "Then, one day, it clicked. Sex and environments are intertwined. Genes don’t copulate, individuals do, and they do it in special places: most
humans have beds, some birds have special trees,
fish have special currents." It's that simple! Organisms need "special environments to recombine
genes." That confirms what I was told about sex
from my mother: everything took place under special lettuce leaves. What his statements have to do
with natural selection is left up to our imaginations.
No sooner had Boulter's epiphany on sex
occurred (got to have sex to sell a book, yes?),
when Darwin left on the voyage of the Beagle.
Within a few sentences of Darwin's sea-sickness,
Louis Agassiz was born! Boulter waxes ecstatic
about Agassiz's spindle diagram of "les poissons
fossiles" that appears to portray evolution, even
though Agassiz believed in the fixity of species.
Then, we are jerked back to Darwin, with a blathering discussion of when Darwin's and Wallace's
abstracts concerning the origin of the species were
read. Boulter then digs himself back to his main
idea of what a species is. In fact, he tells us, it is
very difficult to determine extinct species. It doesn't
take much gray matter to ask the question: if
Boulter doesn't know how to recognize a fossil species, then what in the world is in the database?
That is, what he fails to do is discuss the species
definition that he uses for his database. He next
delves into the mechanism of evolutionary change
by stating: "Most people have a particular explanation for the mechanism to drive evolution. The first
is creationism; the second, natural selection" (p.
146). Boulter agrees with the fixity of species by
5
WALKER: EXTINCTION: EVOLUTION AND THE END OF MAN
accepting the Linnean system, therefore, he must
think that creationism is a mechanism for driving
evolution; at least one could logically come to this
conclusion based on several of his statements.
However, I hope that this is just an example of poor
writing and editing. Otherwise, this statement
would be quite unscientific.
Chapter six ("A Man-Made Extinction Event")
begins by explaining that modern humans (Homo
sapiens), in contrast to Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis), were the most intelligent, most articulate, and the most selfish Homo on earth, and
therefore out competed the more "peaceful" Neandertals. Boulter's view then, is that modern humans
were consequently much better hunters, yet he
fails to mention work on Neandertal bones that
suggest Neandertals may have depended more on
hunting for their food than modern humans (Gibbons, 1996). The migration story of humans is
much more complicated than Boulter discusses
(see Science special issue "Humans on the Move",
2001, vol. 291). Further, genetic and morphological
evidence suggests that Neandertals and modern
humans were quite distinct evolutionary lineages
despite suggestions of interbreeding (Kahn and
Gibbons, 1997; Ponce de León and Zollikofer,
2001). Language, according to Boulter, was the
breakthrough that allowed modern humans ascendancy over Neandertals. Here, Boulter forgets that
many animals have "language" and can "communicate" (Hauser et al., 2002), and thus Boulter has
not really justified his stance that Homo sapiens is
the most sophisticated organism on earth. He also
claims that the tools modern humans developed
were superior to Neandertals. Yet research has
shown that both groups developed new types of
stone tools, adornments, cave art and carvings on
bones (Gibbons, 2001); albeit, Homo sapiens possessed more flare for elaborate art, according to
anthropologists. Later in the chapter, Boulter
implies that Neandertals were decimated by Homo
sapiens (p. 165), however, there is no evidence for
this statement.
Boulter next tries to show that approximately
12,000 years ago, humans may have caused the
extinction of large mammals in North America,
such as the horse, antelope, and buffalo. He forgets, however, that neither the buffalo nor the antelope became extinct in North America after the last
ice age (p. 160). Further, the horse survived in
Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, contemporaneous with humans. Fortunately, he does suggest that climate change may have affected large
mammal extinction, but does not go into detail on
this. It is clear he favors the hypothesis that
humans exterminated the large mammals after the
last ice age, and spends more time on that topic.
Later, he mentions that "...our species can migrate
to new environments without becoming extinct" (p.
162), but he forgets that many other hominid species were migratory, but are now extinct.
He ventures back to climate change, and
makes a point to say that climate extremes
occurred greatly during historical times, but
"humans and other organisms have tended to take
them in stride" (p. 163). I hardly think that the black
death, the Irish potato famine, and the massive
droughts and other famines during the 1300s (and
continuing up to today) were taken "in stride." He
persists in saying that climate change is good, and
that human ingenuity learned to "control the environment" (p. 164). Even though earlier, Boulter
claimed to not understand natural selection, he
invokes this mechanism for explaining the cultural
evolution of humans. I profess, I was relieved that
he didn't say "creationism" as the mechanism for
cultural evolution in humans. He concludes by saying that there is no evidence for large-scale extinction over the last 5,000 years during these climate
cycles (p. 164). Yet many species of molluscs, fish,
and mammals have gone extinct directly related to
over-collecting, over-fishing, or hunting, habitat
destruction, and the introduction of exotic species
(World Resources Institute: A History of Extinction;
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Endangered Species Bulletin).
It is indeed frustrating to read, after he
harangues humans for decimating large mammals
after the ice age, that the "numbers of recently
extinct species are very small indeed, and the full
extinction of species since the last ice age are very
low." Strangely, Boulter next claims that there are
extinctions related to human activities (p. 166), and
that many species of animals and plants are "being
brought to the edge of extinction" (p. 167). These
statements directly contradict what he had said
previously in this chapter. He examines extinctions
related to humans contributing to habitat change
during the last 200 years, rather than the last 3,000
or 12,000 years. He bemoans the demise of coral
reefs and the fate of tropical rain forests. He also
decries the fate of the Irish Elk and the Dodo. Fortunately, for woman, man has caused most of
these extinctions (p. 168). Then, without explanation, there is the curious debate concerning house
sparrows that are recently dying in London, but not
in Paris, somehow connected to humans killing
them off in London (p. 169). Boulter doesn't discuss whether the Urban House Sparrow Crisis
(UHSC) is related to other factors, such as disease
or competition with other urbanized birds. Has the
domesticated, docile and well-fed house cat con6
WALKER: EXTINCTION: EVOLUTION AND THE END OF MAN
tributed to their demise? He also doesn't tell us that
farm-associated house sparrows in the United
Kingdom have achieved stable population sizes.
But why the house sparrow? The funniest passage
of the book has the "UK" (United Kingdom)
attempting to "legislate against importers of aliens"
to keep them out of the "wild." To protect the house
sparrow?
The saddest and most irresponsible part of
the book claims that "evolution thrives on culling."
That is, it is humans predestination to destroy habitats, and thus "nature will be richer for it" (p. 170).
And, "In just the same way, the planet can take
advantage from the abuse we are giving it." Unfortunately, he doesn't say how nature will be richer
for our abuse, as he strangely appears to celebrate
the destructive tendencies of humans. Boulter's
only fear is that humans will become extinct. When
we become extinct, then "peace and quiet" would
return. He ends chapter six with inconclusive statements such that climate change is very complex. It
is impossible to make predictions about global climate change without a lot more data. Further, scientists are not willing to share ideas because they
are saving them for their big grants (p., 173). New
to me, Boulter says that humans will all end up
migrating towards the equator in a few generations
because of global warming (p. 174). I ask you:
would you want to migrate to the equator and broil?
Or would you flee to the polar regions and bask in
balmy conditions? Despite the lack of data, Boulter
still feels that "man" is selfish, that the system is in
free-fall, and that there is nothing we can do to stop
it (p. 176).
The last chapter (Chapter seven, "Humans
and the Future") introduces Stephen Pinker and
Richard Dawkins as atheists and sociobiologists,
who have reduced scientific "explanations to yesno alternatives." Boulter is more than vague here,
but I think he's trying to imply that Pinker's and
Dawkins' view of human behavior is reducible to
genetics, and therefore, too objective; their ideas
seek "fixed, logical answers" (p. 180). Boulter is
disgruntled with these two genetic hooligans, not
only because he couldn't get a ticket to their talk at
Central Hall Westminster (p. 181), but also
because he says that they are ignoring the real
problem of human selfishness. He claims that the
sociobiologists have focused too much on "altruism", rather than on selfishness. Obviously, he
hasn't read E.O. Wilson's (1975) Sociobiology text
that discusses aggression, dominance, territoriality,
competition and other non-altruistic behaviors.
Boulter's view, in fact, is entirely selfish: humans
will continue to "burn natural gas", "use kerosene
for plane flight" (what ever happened to jet fuel?),
and "pump water" into a swimming pool in the
desert (p. 180). He concludes that, "humaninduced environmental change" is a necessary factor for a self-controlled system, like Earth (p. 183).
Boulter goes so far as to say that if there were no
extinctions, then life would cease (p. 184). Isn't this
a tautological argument? Life would still go extinct,
even if there is no extinction? Who edited this
book?
Finally, we have slogged our way to the end of
the book. Here, Boulter shows how the "Fossil
Record 2" group tackles mammal diversity from the
late Cretaceous through the Cenozoic to test the
idea of "imminent human extinction" (p. 185). In
actuality, they want to test whether mammalian
family diversity has declined since the advent of
humans, something that has already been tested
by Dr. John Alroy in North America. Despite this,
Boulter shows that mammalian diversity was at it's
peak during the Miocene when there were "no serious predators" and "food was plentiful", but diversity has declined ever since. In the last ten million
years, he claims, mammalian diversity declined at
a "faster" rate, however, he provides no evidence
for this statement other than a "smoothed" data
curve presented in Fig. 7.1 (p. 188). If you look at
his graph (based actually on Dr. John Alroy's data
they downloaded from the web: North American
Fossil Mammal Systematics Database), there is no
apparent precipitous decline in mammalian families. If you look at the data points there appears to
be a decline and then a subsequent rise in the
number of families in the last million years. But,
according to Boulter, during this time we have lost
36 families from the Earth. Is that a substantial loss
due to humans? Boulter seems to imply that it is,
albeit, most of this loss occurred before humans
evolved between 30 and 5 million years (see fig.
7.1). Additionally, using fig. 7.1, only 15 families of
mammals have been lost since the Miocene: is that
a catastrophic decline? Finally, Boulter claims
there are currently 10 families of mammals in North
America (p. 187). In stark contrast, the Smithsonian Institution's database shows 28 land-dwelling
mammalian families in North America (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: North
American Mammals). In fact, Boulter's depiction of
Alroy's data shows that there are approximately 35
families of mammals in North America today, but
why does Boulter fail to look at his own graph? In
the next breath, Boulter says that it is not climate
change that caused the extinctions, rather it is
humans. He states the first humans killed off big
mammals in Africa, but this statement directly contradicts his earlier statements, that humans in
Africa coexisted with large mammals because they
7
WALKER: EXTINCTION: EVOLUTION AND THE END OF MAN
shared a longer evolutionary history. And what
about the end of humans? Boulter ends the chapter by saying that birds and insects will survive, but
humans, "the most complex" organism on earth,
will go extinct, because his exponential graph predicts this dire end.
And so ends one man's journey into deconstructing the paleobiological past. And the moral of
this story is: check your facts, wash your dirty laundry in private, and get thee to a good editor before
you write your next book!
8