Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, And The Greatest Catastrophe In Earth’s
History, by Peter D. Ward
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/20/06
There are certain things about a book that one can get from the title alone, such as this information:
Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, And The Greatest Catastrophe In Earth’s History, by Peter D. Ward. Viking, New York, NY. 237 pages; 2004; $27.95 (hardbound)
Then there are the schmoozy details, such as, despite this book’s formal title, it really isn’t about science. At least, not about the sciencey things in science, for only in the book’s beginning, and end does the book actually deal with the nitty gritty, that about a quarter of a billion years ago, just as the earth slipped from the Paleozoic to the Mesozoic Era, or the Permian-Triassic (P-T) Age boundary, something happened which wiped out almost 90% of terrestrial life. At first, and for decades, it was assumed that this was a long, several million year old process. Then, when the end of the dinosaurs, at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary, was pretty much nailed by Luis Alvarez as having been created by a meteor that landed off of the Yucatan peninsula, creating the Chicxulub crater, the idea that another Impactor had wiped out the proto-mammals that preceded the dinosaurs took hold. Then, came the idea that vulcanism, or lowered oxygen levels, had paved the way for the dinosaurs, and this is pretty much where Ward ends his book, on a scientific level.
However, science books are pretty much susceptible to their times, and the early 2006 discovery of a huge crater in Antarctic Wilkes Land, which may have been four to five times the size of the K-T Impactor, seems to have given great credence to the belief that it was the primary, if not sole, cause of the P-T extinction event. Furthermore, unlike the K-T Impactor, there is growing evidence that the P-T Impactor may have actually broken the continent of Australia off from Antarctica, and led to the breakup of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland. Given this turn of events, it might seem that Ward’s book should be simply tossed on the heap of outdated science books, for he is not a great essayist in the manner of a Stephen Jay Gould, whose often wrong posits on evolution did not kybosh his ability to effectively communicate ideas, nor is Ward anywhere in a class with the magisterial Loren Eiseley, whose ‘hidden personal essay’ format preceded Gould’s, and whose work is one of the great English language prose corpuses of the last century, even if his decades old ideas on evolution are several generations removed from relevance.
Yet, here is where idiot luck comes in. While Ward is no prose stylist, and one almost feels he is a primitivist or idiot savant banging away at keyboards, he made one very smart decision in writing this book, or, at least, a fortuitous one, which was to make this book less about ‘hard science’, and more about the soft stuff in between. Gorgon focuses far more on the personalities of scientists, the desires for relevance, the politics of the South African lands where the Karoo Desert digs that constitute this book’s Ground Zero take place, and his own personal family ups and downs. Thus, what was a squooshy weakness before the Antarctic discovery, becomes the book’s saving grace after it. It is the thing that helps his book recapitulate its internal posits on science, and survive the transition between times, if barely, much as Ward posits, at book’s end, that the reason the titular proto-mammals, the gorgonopsians, died off and dinosaur forebears survived the low oxygen age, of what was likely the immediate post-P-T era, was a flukey design difference in lung development and air sacs- long thought to be caused in birds by their adaptations to high altitude flight, so does this book enliven a reader with its personal focus in light of many of its disproved ideas. Ward also presciently prophesies that a meteor impact may have been behind the oxygen level drop.
That said, despite its ferocity, the P-T Impactor may have only been a death blow to a world in decline, just as recent evidence suggests that a similar role for the K-T Impactor was as the final knife in a twitching body riddled with abuse. It is the focus of the book on Ward’s life that, while not exhilarating in style, warms in substance. The portrait of a deep, confused, generous, befuddled, wary, and obsessive (as the book’s subtitle belies) man is engaging. Thus, the reader is not so burdened by the book’s flaws, such as Ward’s inordinate penchant for Leave It To Beaverisms, like this, which ends the book:
As for me, I am involved in a new adventure, the story of the rise and fall of oxygen on our planet and how that shaped us, perhaps most importantly in a great mass extinction of 250 million years ago. But mostly I am staying home and watching over my son as he grows up. I’m a father who no longer needs to travel to far African deserts to discover what can be found in a boy’s smile and a wife’s calming embrace.
I did say he was no Loren Eiseley, right? Yes, passages like this are unforgivable on a literary level, and the book really could have been condensed by 40-60% of its 237 pages, and Ward’s reach does not exceed his Browningian grasp, and much of the commentary on his colleagues is so neutral and superficial that they are rendered as dull, if not pointless. Yet the book serves as a sort of oddly fascinating portrait of a man who is a modern Lamarck or Velikovsky- passed by and undone by circumstances and his own limited purview on life, and thus one oddly roots for him in his small travails, such as struggling with a bad metaphor, or a rival’s better idea, even as they are backgrounded by the larger scientific issues.
Last year, I read a much more well written book called Snowball Earth, by Gabrielle Walker, which was everything this book wanted to be. It provided a provocative theory of an almost wholly glaciated earth a half billion years before this ancient impact, and it did so in a lively, engaging style that presented both its theory and personalities in an engaging, well-written style. This book, unfortunately, barely touches upon its own titular subject, which is really the reason most layfolk would buy it. We get too little of the gorgonopsians and too much of filler. This book won’t be of much use in a decade or two, and Ward does not have a great future in science writing the way Walker does, but this book did give more than a few moments of pleasure in its slow meandering, which again recapitulated its ideas about drying Permian rivers, and will leave at least a few dried beds within that will occasionally urge me to rethink its lost waters. If this goes against my usual criteria for recommending a book, so be it. If a man can’t be willfully dissonant, on rare occasions, does his usual consistency have any virtue? As for Mr. Ward, he can thank me at a later date.
Return to Bylines