The Deep History of Life

Paleontologist Andrew Knoll to give a free public lecture at UC Riverside on March 5

Photo shows Andrew Knoll.

Andrew Knoll is Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University.Photo courtesy of Andrew Knoll.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Fossils of shells, bones, tracks and trails record a history of animal evolution more than 600 million years in duration.  Earth, however, is some four and a half billion years old, prompting the question of what kinds of life characterized our planet’s youth and middle age.

Harvard University’s Andrew Knoll, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences best known for his contributions to Precambrian paleontology and biogeochemistry, will address this question in a free public lecture he will give on March 5 at the University of California, Riverside.

Titled “The Deep History of Life,” the hour-long lecture will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Conference Rooms D and E, UCR Extension Center (UNEX), 1200 University Ave., Riverside. The lecture is hosted by the university’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the new Environmental Dynamics and GeoEcology (EDGE) Institute.

“The rich biological diversity we see around us today is the product of an evolutionary odyssey nearly four billion years long,” said Knoll, who also is the Fisher Professor of Natural History and curator of the Paleobotanical Collections in the Herbaria at Harvard University. “Understanding our past may help us to make wise decisions about our future.”

Admission and parking at UNEX are free of charge for lecture attendees.

Knoll has longstanding interests in biomineralization, paleobotany, plankton evolution, and mass extinction. He has discovered microfossil records of early life in Spitsbergen, East Greenland, Siberia, China, Namibia, western North America, and Australia. He has elucidated early records of skeletonized animals in Namibia and remarkable fossils of the Ediacaran Doushantuo Formation, China.  He and his colleagues were the first to hypothesize that rapid build-up of carbon dioxide played a key role in end-Permian mass extinction, 252 million years ago.

SciLectures“Genealogical relationships among living organisms, inferred from molecular sequence comparisons, suggest that the deep history of life is microbial, and over the past three decades paleontologists have discovered a rich record microorganisms in rocks that long predate the earliest records of animals,” Knoll said.  “Moreover, emerging geochemical research on the same rocks establishes a long term record of environmental change that provides a critical framework for evaluating evolutionary history.  Together, paleontological and paleoenvironmental research foster the view that Earth and life have co-evolved over our planet’s long history, together shaping the world we see today.”

Knoll received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1977.  Thereafter, he taught at Oberlin College for five years before returning to Harvard as a professor in 1982.

His honors include membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Microbiology, as well as the Paleontological Society Medal, the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society (London), the Moore Medal of the Society for Sedimentary Geology, and both the Walcott and Thompson Medals of the National Academy of Sciences. He received the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth. He has also served as a member of the science team for NASA’s MER (Mars Exploration Rover) mission to Mars.

For more questions about his talk, please call (951) 827-3182 or email


Global climate and environmental change, and the associated degradation of ecosystems, together form the biggest issue facing society today. UCR’s EDGE Institute aims to examine life in this changing environment, focusing on carbon (molecules to organisms), nutrients, and water at various temporal and spatial scales. It brings together UCR scientists from the biological, chemical, and physical sciences to examine particular questions or issues.

Directing the institute will be the holder of the Wilbur W. Mayhew Chair, recently endowed by anonymous donors who are passionate about the ecology of the southwest. Their $1.5 million gift honors Mayhew, a pioneering ecologist, UCR faculty member and co-founder of the UC Natural Reserves System.  His work resulted in the preservation of key natural habitats throughout California for future generations of scientists and students. These habitats are invaluable today as laboratories of the natural world.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-6050
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Additional Contacts

Jennifer Reising
Tel: (951) 827-3182

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