[Paleopsych] NYT: Norman Newell, 96, Scientist Who Studied Dying Species, Has Died
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Sat Apr 23 23:47:33 UTC 2005
Norman Newell, 96, Scientist Who Studied Dying Species, Has Died
By JEREMY PEARCE
Dr. Norman D. Newell, an influential paleontologist who challenged
opponents of evolutionary theory and helped shape theories explaining
the mass extinctions of species, died on Monday at his home in Leonia,
N.J., his family said. He was 96.
In a wide-ranging career that included scholarship, fieldwork and
popular writing, he taught at Columbia and spent four decades as a
curator of invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History in
Dr. Newell pursued his interests in the evolution of living and fossil
bivalve mollusks, the formation and ecology of coral reefs and the
geological history of the Peruvian Andes. His work on mass extinctions
began in the 1950's, when he began to look at the disappearance of
certain clams and other mollusks from the fossil record in Texas.
He compared clams to other marine invertebrates in the Upper Paleozoic
and Early Mesozoic periods - about 245 million years ago - and
eventually concluded that the extinctions were a result of changes in
sea levels and a fatal retreat of warm and shallow seas. Although
other scientists had been aware of the marine extinctions, Dr. Newell
was an early and dedicated investigator of their causes and the
conditions surrounding them.
Dr. Niles Eldredge, a curator in the division of paleontology at the
American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and Dr. Stephen Jay
Gould, the essayist and Harvard paleontologist who died in 2002, were
students of Dr. Newell's at Columbia. In the 1970's, they developed
the theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution, which is the notion
that transitions in species take place periodically, during intense
periods of activity and not necessarily as part of a steady and
Dr. Eldredge said yesterday that Dr. Newell became "a voice crying in
the wilderness" in explaining the evolutionary importance of mass
extinctions "at a time when no one else in the field was talking about
"Now, increasingly in evolutionary thinking," he added, "we recognize
that extinction triggers what happens with the history of life, and is
part and parcel with the evolution of life." In 1947, Dr. Newell led
an expedition to the Peruvian Andes, near a region that he had
previously helped to map, to collect marine fossils from elevations
above 10,000 feet.
In 1952, he led a group of scientists from the Museum of Natural
History to study South Pacific atolls that were formed by coral reefs.
The group landed on the atoll of Raroia, where Dr. Newell examined the
ecology and sedimentation of reef systems.
In later studies of coral reefs in the Bahamas in the 1960's, Dr.
Newell brought "the study of fossils into the realm of ecology and
managed to reconstruct what they were like in living communities," Dr.
John Imbrie, emeritus professor of paleo-oceanography at Brown
University, said yesterday.
Later in his career, Dr. Newell contributed to the public debate
pitting theories of creationism against evolution. His 1982 book
"Creation and Evolution: Myth or Reality?" was intended for a popular
audience and became "a ringing defense of Darwinian evolution that
makes it very clear that nobody in science disagrees that man has
evolved," Dr. Eldredge said.
Dr. Newell continued to study extinction and proposed that the earth
in the late 20th century was experiencing "one of the greatest of all
mass extinctions." He attributed the losses of hundreds of species to
ecological disturbances caused by humans. Indeed, a 1987 paper written
by Dr. Newell and a museum colleague, Dr. Leslie Marcus, found a
nearly direct correlation between an increase in world population and
increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The paper was published in Palaios, a journal of the Society of
Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, and found that emissions
of carbon dioxide were "almost wholly dependent on human activities
with only very minor contributions from natural causes."
Norman Dennis Newell was born in Chicago. He received his bachelor's
and master's degrees from the University of Kansas and a doctorate in
geology from Yale.
He taught at the University of Wisconsin before 1945, when he joined
the Museum of Natural History, where he remained for the rest of his
career. He was named a curator emeritus in 1977.
Dr. Newell was president of the Society for the Study of Evolution in
1949. He was elected president of the Paleontological Society in 1960
and 1961. In 1978 he was awarded the American Museum of Natural
History's Gold Medal for Achievement in Science.
He is survived by his wife, the former Gillian Wormall.
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