medeahypothesisAuthors: Peter Ward
Publisher: Princeton Press
Reviewed by Orlay Johnson

This book might be more appropriately titled, “Mothers who Murder their Children.” It explores how Mother Earth periodically cleans house of the majority its biota. Sadly, the reference to Medea in the actual title is probably lost on most of us, unless you know more Greek mythology than I did. For the rest of us, Medea was the wife of Jason the Argonaut, who took revenge on her cheating husband by murdering her own children. Suddenly the book sounds more interesting, huh?

The author, University of Washington Professor and local Seattle boy, Peter Douglas Ward, is a paleontologist who keeps chambered nautiluses in his office to study their life history. He recently re- turned from a season of research in Antarctica, so expect his next book to focus on fossils from the South Pole (you heard it here first).

A very prolific writer, with over 12 “popular science” books on geol- ogy, prehistoric animals and mass extinctions in print, including The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared (1997) and his more recent Under a Green Sky (2007). Most of them are setting on my bookshelf watching me as I type this review of their newest sibling. Ward’s trick to literary longevity is to take a topical or less well known topic, research the hell out of it, spin some aspect to make it controversial, and write it all up in a fun “wiz bang” way. In general, they are fun reads and you learn a lot more about some semi-obscure aspect of earth or space science than you ever intended.

As in his other books, Ward has taken a theory most of us know, “the Earth as benevolent Gaia,” championed by James Lovelock, and put together a book full of data to suggest dear Mother Earth is not only not “good,” but that she actually is a serial killer. A serial killer who will knock us off as surely as those teenagers falling asleep in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series.

Is it as fun to read as his other books? Maybe not, perhaps because it is much darker than the other books; with less humor, more chemistry, and a greater preference than usual for long and complex words. Be prepared, Ward’s books are for the “scientifically literate,” so keep a dictionary handy and be prepared for an onslaught of enumerated lists – the guy loves them, and they seem to be on every other page.

Dr. Ward’s books are usually ideal for motivated middle, high school, or undergraduate students. If a student has enjoyed Under a Green Sky, or other Ward books, they’ll probably like this one, but you should probably preview the book before recommending it to students. After all, the book is about how your Earth Mother will even- tually kill you – plus just reading some of the chemistry can be a killer all by itself.

In a nutshell, what does he say in the book? His thesis (as in Green Sky) is that only one of the six mass extinctions we’ve documented on this planet was due to an extraterrestrial cause (i.e., an meteorite). For the majority, life poisoned itself just by living and producing carbon dioxide and other chemicals – the resultant high and low temperatures sent most everyone back to “Start” without collecting $200 on the way.

The mechanics of the book are straight forward: The author convincingly lays out his hypothesis in the first 8 chapters. Chapter 9 is a summation (its title) presented in four enumerated points of the previous chapters (so you might want to start here and then reread 1-8). The two final chapters (10 and 11) are on the implications of the hypothesis (death to all) with a interesting final chapter entitled “What can be done?” Sadly, the answer seems to be “not much.” Ward is a paleontologist, not an engineer, and the engineering section of the chapter (which is less than a page long) seems fairly weak and focuses primarily on giant reverse space blanket over the ice caps – to reflect heat back into space. I’m not an engineer either, so maybe I’m missing something, but it does seem that a co-author who is an engineer could have provided some alternative scenar ios.

Still I enjoyed the book, maybe not as much as Under a Green Sky subtitled Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future, but this is a nice follow-up, not overly long, and well worth its reasonable price. Is it true – is Earth a Medea or a Gaia? To a large extent, who cares — both Ward and Lovelock (see The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can by J. Lovelock) suggest that regardless of the model for earth, things are going to hell in a hand basket. So, unless we get our act together, it is only a question of how, not what.

Along with the Medea Hypothesis book, I’d strongly suggest reading What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel, an important little book that is a nice companion to Ward’s book, and that can almost be read at one sitting (if you like to stay up and read very late into the night).

Orlay Johnson works for the National Marine Fisheries Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is a member of the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME). This review originally appeared in Scuttlebutt, the newsletter for the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME).