Stanley, Steven M. (earth scientist)

(1941- ) American Paleontologist

Evolution is a concept that is still controversial well over a century after Charles Darwin documented it. Even now, school boards in certain areas hold heated debates about whether it will be taught, and sometimes it is voted down in favor of creationism. Typically, evolution is considered as part of biology rather than geology. However, one of the true scientific leaders on placing the processes of evolution into full and proper context is the geologist Steven Stanley. The reason that he has been so effective in his work is that he addresses evolution using a holistic approach. Rather than simply considering how an organism or family of organisms is changing over the generations, he considers the stimuli and interactions as well. By understanding the pressures and opportunities that an organism faces, he more fully understands the way in which it adapts. Using this approach, he performed a highly original analysis of how animals go extinct, he clarified the role of species in large-scale (macro) evolution and he analyzed functional shape changes of animals in adaptive evolution.

In his study of extinction, Stanley found that regional climatic cooling during the Plio-Pleis-tocene ice age caused the disappearance of many species of western Atlantic marine fauna. This and other related work led him to first propose that climate change, whether terrestrial or extraterrestrial, is the main cause of mass extinctions, which he published in a book entitled Extinction. Most geologists now accept this idea. He further considered the role of plate tectonics in evolution and extinction in a very successful historical geology textbook entitled Evolution of Earth and Life Through Time. This interest in the complex interplay of climate, plate tectonics, and evolution caused him to further consider the dramatic impact of ice ages on human evolution in his popular book Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve. He continued exploring this complex interplay with Johns Hopkins University colleague Lawrence Hardie. They considered activity of reef-building organisms, seawater chemistry, spreading rates on mid-ocean ridges, and climate changes to model animal and whole-Earth evolution. Such “bio-complexity” is now the direction that most biologic, climatic, and paleontologic research has followed.

Steven M. Stanley was born on November 2, 1941, near Cleveland, Ohio, where he spent his childhood years. He attended Princeton University, New Jersey, and earned a bachelor of arts degree in geology in 1963, graduating summa cumlaude. He did a senior thesis on the paleoecology of the Key Largo Limestone, Florida. After one year at the University of Texas at Austin, he entered a doctoral program at Yale University, Connecticut. There he earned a Ph.D. in paleontology in 1968. Before completing his doctorate, he accepted a position at the University of Rochester, New York, in 1967, but only remained until 1969. He joined the faculty at the Johns Hopkins University in 1969, and remains there today. He served as chair of the department in 1987 and 1988 and chair of the Environmental Earth Sciences and Policy Master’s Program from 1993 to present. Stanley also spent 1990 to 1991 as chair of the department at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio.

Steven Stanley has been productive throughout his career. He is an author of 57 articles in international journals and professional volumes, many of which are very prestigious including several in the high-profile journal Science. However, his real fame in publication lies in his books. He wrote eight books and edited two professional volumes. Several of these books are popular, high-quality textbooks whereas others are scholarly books and more popular science books. His textbooks, Principles of Paleontology, with david m. raup and his Earth and Life Through Time and successors Exploring Earth and Life Through Time and Earth System History are standard reading for courses in paleontology and Earth history respectively.

Stanley has been well recognized in the profession for his research. He received the Best Paper Award from the Journal of Paleontology in 1972. He was awarded the Allan C. Davis Medal from the Maryland Academy of Science in 1973 and the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society in 1977. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980-1981 and an American Book Award Nomination in 1981 for his book, The New Evolutionary Timetable. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1994. He received the J.A. Brownocker Medal from the Ohio State University in 1998.

Steven Stanley has also performed significant service to the profession. He was a member of several editorial boards including American Journal of Science (1975 to present), Paleobiology (19751982), and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1999-2000). He served several positions in the Paleontological Society including councilor (1976-1977, 1991-1993) and president (1993-1994), among others. He was president of the American Geological Institute in 2000-2001. He served on the National Research Council, board of Earth sciences, for which he was vice chair in 1987-1988. He also served on several major committees for Geological Society of America, among other societies.

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