Review of Peter
Ward’s The Life And Death Of Planet Earth And Life As We Do Not Know
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/29/08
A few years ago I gave a very weak recommendation to a book ostensibly on paleontology, called Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, And The Greatest Catastrophe In Earth’s History, by a Peter D. Ward. Some time later I got a hilariously inane and non sequitured email from said Mr. Ward, detailed here. I lay this all out so that those reading such a review will know all the whys wherefores and such, so to not be accused of a bias. In my initial review I correctly pointed out that Mr. Ward was simply a very poor prose stylist, as well as his lacking a coherent reason for his book, since so much of it did not deal with its titular subject.
That said, I recently came upon two other books by Mr. Ward in a discount bookstore, and, prodded, by their subject matters, decided to give both a chance. The first book was published in 2002, and was co-authored with a Donald Brownlee. It is called The Life And Death Of Planet Earth: How The New Science Of Astrobiology Charts The Ultimate Fate Of Our World, and is a followup to the duo’s earlier Rare Earth. The second book is 2005’s Life As We Do Not Know It: The NASA Search For (And Synthesis Of) Alien Life.
On the positive side, both books are better works than Gorgon. On the negative side, neither are, in any way, shape nor form, first class books of science, although both books fail for different reasons. That stated, let me just comment on a problem many science books have, and that is their lengthy subtitles. Most are simply pretentious, and as is the case with the second book, was the parenthetical really necessary, especially considering that NASA’s search for alien life really has little to do with ward’s book, which is more or less Ward’s own pat on the back for believing he has come up with new ideas and classifications for life on earth, even though he has not, to this time, offered his ‘research’ up to peer review; instead trying to gain public acclamation for his ideas, so many of which are retreads from not only earlier speculations by scientists, but from science fiction writers as early as the 1930s. This seems to be a recurring problem in Ward’s books- his own overweening belief in his scientific knowledge, and a narcissism devoted to his own existence above the science he examines.
Fortunately, while that infects a good deal of Life As We Do Not Know It, it is far less recurrent in his co-authored text, The Life And Death Of Planet Earth. Still, even that book has some manifest flaws. Chief among them is the reliance on one of the oldest logical fallacies- that being the Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends. While this may be a necessity for science fiction, for science fact, it’s inexcusable. The idea behind Ward’s and Brownlee’s book is that life on earth- at least complex life, has only a few hundred million years to go, at best, before the earth slowly reverts, over the next five to seven billion years, to former states it had during its infancy, with bacterial life being the last thing remaining, as the sun becomes a red giant and burns earth to a cinder. In short, while the physical mass of the planet is still less than half its eventual age, life as we know it is in senescence
These predictions are based upon supposed ‘known facts,’ which they see as rising levels of certain gases in the earth’s atmosphere, and an increase in the brightness of the sun. Yet, the patterns of star development are still in their infancy, and life, more complex than it was in the past (although the duo gives some arguments against that- complexity in terms of diversity vs. in terms of individuals and species), also seems to exhibit a greater stranglehold over the biosphere than was previously thought. By its nature, evolution is unpredictable, so how future life might evolve- especially if aided by our superhuman descendents, to cope with such changes is a crapshoot, at best. In short, the arguments used by Ward and Brownlee are akin to reading an ancient text claiming that the moon will never be reached.
And, aside from their speculations- which are merely pessimistic when not unoriginal, neither man’s writing takes a grip of the reader the way the writing of a Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Steven Pinker can. Nowhere is there the joy of just ruminating on the way they paint their pictures. And while Ward has a history of speculative science (his 2001 book Future Evolution), it has never been as interesting nor as exciting as that of his great rival, Dougal Dixon, and this is because Ward simply has a closed mind, and furthermore, cannot even recognize its closure. He dismisses almost any ideas that he does not agree with as mere piffle, even if they include plausible things such as FTL (faster than light) travel. Yet, even modern physicists admit that FTL travel is more of technical and financial problem than a physical one, and there are already several plausible scenarios to circumvent that stricture that do not violate known physics. Yet, Ward seems utterly ignorant of that whole field of science, not to mention that humans, if we do survive, will no longer even be humans.
Worse, there are numerous typos and grammatical errors to be corrected if the publisher, Henry Holt, even bothered assigning a proofreader, much less an editor, to this book. Then there are things such as the mangling of the famed Drake Equation, with no real explanation- as whole parts of it are excised. In Googling around, I was glad to see that many other critics- both professional and the Amazon sort, agreed with my assessment, and some detailing of the egregious and numerous errors- both factual and constructive, are enumerated. Yet, as stated, the whole premise of the book veers toward the silly, even as it is morosely presented. Add to that the duo’s penchant for garbling even basic science- especially that outside their fields of expertise (and apparent to even informed layety as myself), and the book, while not as badly written as Ward’s own Gorgon, cannot be taken seriously as even speculative science.
That stated, the loss of Brownlee in Ward’s own Life As We Do Not Know It, shows what Ward’s wordsmithing and ego are like without the governor of a partner to cool down his worst flaws. This book is little more than Ward trying to a) declaim his scientific greatness by b) neologizing whole new systems of biological classification while c) aping the work of people before him (in stating that things not thought of as life are), yet claiming, somehow, that it is he, alone, who has put this all forth.
In the book, Ward goes beyond the two highest classifications of life- Kingdoms and Domains, and creates Dominions and Arborea- although he does so with the thoroughly unoriginal idea that viruses and other RNA-based life, might necessitate such. That he does this in a mediocre popular science book, and not a formal text submitted for peer review, says much about the evidence he presents. Then, again, the book is much more about Peter Ward and his scientific genius than it is about scientific nature; which he shows little facility in- especially when outside his fields of expertise- such as astronomy (in claiming things about the Martian ice caps and atmospheric makeup that are not so), or in declaiming he alone has solved the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event (despite great controversies over the matter, based upon a much clearer understanding of the science).
But, given the book’s title, the fact that all Ward can do to justify the title is reclassify viruses and prions, and gloomily pontificate on possible life on Mars, Venus, and the moons Europa and Titan, while barely scratching the surface of possible life forms that others have speculated on- such as life on white dwarf stars, life in interstellar clouds, or other possibly truly ‘alien’ life forms. Given that even viruses are CHON (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen) forms of life, Ward’s imagination leaves much to be demanded. Even his neologism of common cellular life as the Terroan Dominion shows his hubris and sloppiness, as the word merely means ‘earth life,’ while such would just as easily apply to viruses and prions, thereby making his neologism superfluous. And, as in the book co-authored with Brownlee, this book is sloppily edited at all levels, and packed with more of Ward’s often poorly parsed sentence constructions. However, all of that would be mere footnotes were Ward capable of writing lucidly and vividly of a really deep idea, one that he did not crib from others- that rabble he so easily dismisses in this book and The Life And Death Of Planet Earth.
In brief, if you want to read a science book that will energize your thoughts and get you thinking at a deeper level, take a pass on this pair, and pull down even the decades old works of a Loren Eiseley, for while some of the science in those books will be out of date, the magisterial prose within them will work their way into your mind days after putting the physical book down. Peter Ward’s work, however, will have you bleary-eyed mere pages into them. Choose well. Unlike evolution, you can do so.
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