- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004


By Peter D. Ward

Viking, $27.95, 257 pages


The Permian extinction was the greatest catastrophe to fall — perhaps literally — upon life on earth. Possibly at the initiation of an asteroid or comet strike, the disaster eventually destroyed 90 percent of all animals and plants on the planet.

Yet for several reasons, the event is less well known than the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K/T) mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. For one, the Permian extinction was far more ancient — 265 million years ago against the 65 million years of the K/T event. The flora and fauna of the Permian are less spectacular than the brontosaurus-sized birds of Jurassic Park. The fossils from the Permian are more weathered and more difficult to discover.

Peter Ward’s new book “Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History” is in part an effort to fill in that piece of the fossil record. Along the way, Mr. Ward also describes the practice of paleontology with all its jagged edges, ranging from the physical stresses of the field to the psychic tribulations of analyzing the data.

Between those two layers, Mr. Ward also tries to give glimpses of the major social upheaval that South Africa was undergoing during his decade of fieldwork there. For the most part, he succeeds. However, he occasionally allows his primeval instincts to scar his cultivated prose.

The book’s title comes from the largest land carnivore of the period. Gorgons were a cross between a lion and a lizard — producing not a furry pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes that growl when someone tries to steal them, but a sort of land shark, a creature with lizard-eyes, large claws and an appetite the size of its huge fangs. Gorgons are the most prized fossils of the Permian found in South Africa’s huge northern desert, the Great Karoo.

The Great Karoo is also a particularly trying place to do paleontology, as Mr. Ward discovered over the course of several expeditions there. He does a superb job describing the strains of the long days that he and co-team leader Roger Smith spent under the broiling desert sun searching for the remains of ancient life.

Thirst was always a factor. Ants were frequent companions. So were ticks, whose bites could lethally infect with Lhassa fever. Roads to work sites were sometimes little more than tracks cut through fields. Equipment and fossil finds had to be lugged up steep slopes, over fences and across boulder fields.

Sometimes samples broke. Other times, they had nothing to say despite extensive (and expensive) lab analysis. There were other frustrations. Almost all of the samples gathered on one expedition were lost during a freak lab fire.

The biggest fossil find of Mr. Ward’s expeditions — initially thought to be a Gorgon — proved after further study to be a strange herbivore that no one had ever seen before.

The agony did result in some scientific ecstasy — a fundamental shift in the way that scientists viewed the Permian extinction. At the time that Mr. Ward started his research, the accepted doctrine was that the event had been extremely gradual, taking place over a period of up to 10 million years.

By the time that Mr. Ward and others working along the same lines had laid down a new layer of research on the event, it was evident that the extinction had been much more rapid — happening over a period of no more than 165,000 years, and probably even fewer.

Most surprisingly, there was not a single event of extinction, but rather a staggered (not to mention staggering) series of them, one following another.

An asteroid strike may have caused part of the killing, but as in the Kennedy assassination (if you believe Oliver Stone), it’s unlikely that it acted alone. While no one is really sure about what exactly happened at the Permian boundary, Mr. Ward argues that the root of the extinction was asphyxiation. At the time of the extinction, atmospheric oxygen levels fell rapidly while atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose, making the planet hotter and the air much harder to breathe.

Mr. Ward tells most of this story with clarity, occasionally interrupting for bits of digression. He opens one chapter by describing the ocean-front view of his house in Cape Town: “The large green grassy park was fronted by indigo sea and yellow sand.” Concerning his fertile field of fossil finding, he writes, “At any given time, at this moment, untold millions of skeletons from that long-ago, faraway garden are baking in the African summer sun or cracking under the harsh winter frost, eroding, disappearing to dust …”

The author’s descriptions of under-powered rental cars and lumpy hotel beds highlight some surprising difficulties of fieldwork. However, at points, his writing takes on the tone and texture of a travel brochure, complete with restaurant recommendations and lodging suggestions.

There are many sections — particularly towards the end of the book — in which Mr. Ward’s emotional Gorgons, as it were, bite. He accreted angry sentiment on top of angry sentiment against his partner Mr. Smith during their years of fieldwork together, many of which he gives vent to here.

Mr. Ward berates Mr. Smith for drinking heavily and turning nasty at a hotel one night; he writes of his own generosity in allowing Mr. Smith to stay at his home in Seattle, even though the favor was never reciprocated when he was in Cape Town.

Mr. Ward’s primitive narcissism is even worse than his picking at old resentments. He tells of sitting beside his dying father’s bedside, “waiting for a final benediction from him that this journey I was on was worth its effort, worthy of his respect.” Even in his father’s last moment, the author “wondered why I did what I did.”

Proclaiming of Mr. Smith, “I have more respect for this man than most I know of,” Mr. Ward adds a breath later, “I am at a loss to know what he thinks of me. Am I a friend? A colleague? A tool?” That question can only be given a partial answer — that Mr. Ward is the sort of person who would insert such prattle into a paleontology book.

Time and testing will tell if the conclusions Mr. Ward drew from his painstaking fieldwork hold up. He seems to be on target with his ideas of staggered extinctions, especially considering that the Chicxulub Crater, long thought to be the distinctive marker of the day that the dinosaurs died, was recently discovered to predate that event by about 300,000 years.

Mr. Ward’s prose may hold up less well. He is superb when he details the sufferings of the scientific method. He is quite good at describing the debate about mass extinctions. He is disappointing when he writes with his emotions.

Both intentionally and inadvertently, he shows that the study of paleontology is indeed the study of humanity, of the awful events that shaped the ancient world and the primal drives that persist despite man’s physical evolution.

Charles Rousseaux is a member of the editorial board of The Washington Times.

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