The End of the World: Extinction and Reemergence of Life
By Doug Erwin, senior scientist and curator of paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and part-time resident faculty member of SFI

If Cormac McCarthy knows what caused the cataclysm in The Road, he's not telling, and we're all left to speculate. Was it a nuclear exchange? A massive volcanic eruption? The impact of an extraterrestrial object? We don't know, and in some sense, it does not really matter. But we do know a good deal about what happens after such events. Geologists and paleontologists (who study fossils) have studied how plants and animals responded to the six great mass extinctions of the past 600 million years, as well as smaller events such as massive volcanic eruptions. The first organisms to reappear are often ferns and weedy flowering plants that reproduce and spread rapidly. In the sea, many microbes and some algae spread rapidly.

The deforestation described in The Road would release nutrients from the land into rivers, lakes and the ocean, encouraging further growth. Eventually, slower-growing species would begin to reemerge. Understanding these events is a great scientific challenge, because new ecological communities would most likely operate with different rules than communities that exist before such catastrophes. Why this should happen is not clear, but it emphasizes that the aftermath of such catastrophes may not be a rebuilding of previous relationships but the construction of an entirely new world.

About the Author
Doug Erwin is the author or editor of six books, including Extinction: How Life Nearly Died 250 Million Years Ago, published in December 2005 by Princeton University Press. His latest project is a book on evolutionary innovation through the history of life, which will also explore the similarities and differences between economic and biological innovation. Various field projects have taken Doug repeatedly to China, South Africa and Namibia, and he has done geological field work in various other regions as well. His tombstone will probably read, unfortunately, "He ran a good meeting."

The struggle for survival and other themes from The Road