“Future Evolution” by Peter Ward

A scientist and an artist team up to portray a future of square tomatoes, kangaroo rats and universally brown-skinned humans who don't need food.

Topics: Books,

"Future Evolution" by Peter Ward

Before you crack this book open, close your eyes and let your imagination roam into the eons to come. Maybe pets will have evolved to do housework. Maybe real food will no longer exist. Maybe humans will have developed a handy fertility switch, to be flicked on only when we want babies. A title like “Future Evolution: An Illuminated History of Life to Come” inspires fanciful musings, no?

Well, this book isn’t anything like that.

Peter Ward, a geology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, is not really a details man. Even in the chapter dealing with the future evolution of humans — and let’s face it, that’s what we shallow laypeople are interested in — there’s little to really set your heart aflutter. He speculates vaguely that the races may merge, yielding “a universal brown-skinned future.” That’s nice. And that we may be genetically engineering our offspring. Well, yes. The one really intriguing suggestion he raises is that we should somehow manage to stop eating and become solar-powered, but he expends a mere paragraph on the idea.

Despite what its title may imply, this book is concerned more with the process of evolution than with its specific results. Almost half the book is taken up with evolution’s historical record, and the other half is basically a framework for how it will carry on.

But Ward’s Big Idea is a fascinating one. (Good thing, too, as this isn’t the first book he’s written on the topic.) Unlike the doomsayers out there, he doesn’t think there’s another mass extinction looming. Rather, he’s convinced it’s well underway, and that the worst is already over. Most of the big mammals that are going to die off already have. Among those no longer with us are the mastodons, the mammoths, the saber-toothed tiger, the giant short-faced bear. “It is visible in the rear-view mirror, a roadkill already turned into geologic litter — bones not yet even petrified — the end of the Age of Megamammals,” he writes.

History has taught us that mass extinctions like these — especially of large beasts — usually give rise to exciting new species. The Permo-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago lost mammal-like reptiles and gained dinosaurs. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction 65 million years ago extinguished the dinosaurs, making way for mammals. But if you’re eagerly awaiting the new exotica, you might be disappointed. Ward thinks that most of the new species to spring from this round of death have already sprung. They are mostly farm animals, transgenic plants and drug-resistant bacteria.



And while human beings had a hand in the demise of the megamammals, and even in determining which among the new species would survive, we aren’t going to die out in some kind of earthly tit-for-tat. Indeed, Ward describes us humans as “functionally extinction-proof.” We’re smart, for one thing, and adaptable. Chances are, says Ward, humans will be around to see planet Earth through to its end.

A particular pleasure of the book is the futuristic artwork that accompanies the text. In glowing color, we are presented with everything from square tomatoes to kangaroo-like rats. Artist Alexis Rockman adds this delightful dimension to the book.

Ward, for his part, is a very capable writer. His words are well chosen and carefully polished. Occasionally he’s downright eloquent, as here, on the impact of cities:

“Our plane lifted from the lushly verdant Yucatan on a luminous day, and we flew over a starkly visible Mexico. The flight was not very long, and a vista of mountains and forests passed far beneath us. Eventually I spotted a distant mountain, larger than the others, and as we approached I was filled with wonder. Never had I seen a mountain like this before, perfectly dome-shaped, brown in color, impossibly tall, a vision that enlarged and degenerated into implausibility. Our pilot headed straight toward the summit of this great mount, and just as we were about to crash into it, I realized what it was: the air over Mexico City, a mountain of pollution covering the huge sprawl below.”

Ward’s early chapters, highlighting the two above-mentioned extinctions as well as the current one, are authoritative and clear. However, when he strays from his areas of expertise, as when writing on the future shape of man, I found it harder to trust him. He relies too heavily on single sources to flavor his predictions, and too often those single sources are writers of outdated popular science books.

Ward gets in a muddle on the issue of intelligence, for instance. First he struggles a bit to define it, then decides it’s irrelevant to do so. He summarizes two theories on how human intelligence evolved in a paragraph each. Then, borrowing heavily from a book called “The Gene Bomb,” published in 1996 — so, probably written around 1994, years before some of the biggest leaps in human genetics — he raises the possibility that we could get dumber and more mentally unstable. Ward doesn’t exactly buy the idea that we’ll be less intelligent, but he nevertheless reiterates the suggestion by the author, David Comings, that we are unwittingly passing on the genes for behavioral and mental disorders.

According to Ward, Comings makes that stale old argument that people with behavioral and mental disorders get pregnant earlier and more often, thus sullying the gene pool — a sort of “unnatural” selection — while “intelligent” people go to university and breed less. Comings apparently suggests that the former is true of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But do people with ADHD really reproduce more and at a younger age? How many studies have been done on that question since the disorder was first recognized and included in the DSM, the bible of mental disorders, in 1980? And are people with ADHD really less intelligent, or do they just perform less well on standard intelligence tests because of their inability to concentrate?

These are but a few examples of factoids I would have liked to see referenced. But, alas, there are no footnotes. Has genetic engineering of plant species really yielded “spectacular dividends in terms of crop yield”? Exactly which “further work” has found that “depression, addiction, and impulsive, compulsive, oppositional and cognitive disorders” may be “coded on only a few genes”? How can I be confident in what Ward is saying if he doesn’t tell me where the learned ideas come from?

In a way, I have to admire Ward. He builds most of his case on the science as he knows it. He is well aware that a lot of readers are clamoring for a sensationalist life-after-man story. He even includes a charming anecdote of how the BBC asked him to be a scientific advisor for a television series on the future of evolution — with one catch. The future of evolution, they had decided, would not include humans. Needless to say, he politely declined.

Ward’s book is fun, insightful, educational and bold. Sadly, for me, there was just a tad too much Evolution, and not enough Life to Come.

Alison Motluk is a freelance writer based in Toronto

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>