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History of Life on Earth

History of Life on Earth is Focus of Public Lecture at UC Riverside

Paleontologist Nigel Hughes to discuss how fossil record provides information about evolution

(May 1, 2009)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A brief understanding of what science tells us about the history of life on Earth and how this history supports Charles Darwin’s views of evolution is the focus of a free, public lecture at UC Riverside.

Paleontologist Nigel Hughes will give the lecture at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 14, in the University Theatre on campus.

The title of his talk is “Life’s Rocky Road: The History of Life on Earth.”

“For the first time in human history, what we believe about the planet’s past has direct consequences for how we face our future,” said Hughes, a professor of geology in UCR’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Luckily for us, the past has written a record of itself, and I have the particular pleasure of exploring this record and sharing it with others.”

The hour-long talk by Hughes will include a question-and-answer session. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. Seating is open.

“Although we can’t directly experience the past, we can explore it, just as a detective gathers varied evidence to reconstruct past events,” Hughes said. “In the lecture I will show how we do that, and what the fossil record tells us about evolution. I will show how astonishingly successful Darwin’s ideas have been in the light of both fossil discoveries and related discoveries in other areas of biology.”

At UCR, Hughes, a specimen-based paleontologist, studies a variety of evolutionary and geological questions using fossils, particularly trilobites, a fossil group of extinct marine arthropods. His research explores how the trilobites grew, developed and evolved. He uses knowledge of trilobites and other fossils to understand the history of the Himalayas.

“The fossil record remains united by one consistent theme: descent with modification,” Hughes said. “What is the story that fossils are telling us? It is a dramatic tale of the unfolding of organic diversity via an ongoing dance between periods of crisis and boredom. It is also a story of small winners and big losers. And it is a story whose consequences we cannot ignore, for we live on a knife edge, balanced between the generation of new species and the loss of existing species through extinction.”

Hughes undertook graduate study in the Bengali language at Visva-Bharati University, India, and received his Ph.D. in geology from the University of Bristol, the United Kingdom. He was a recipient of the prestigious Natural Environment Research Council Postdoctoral (NATO) Fellowship for geological research on the Himalayas and a Smithsonian Postdoctoral Fellowship for work on trilobite evolution.

After appointments in Ireland, Australia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, he joined UCR in 1997. His publications include two books and more than 60 other works published in international peer-reviewed scientific journals. He was the 2006 Crafoord Lecturer at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

The talk by Hughes is being hosted by UCR’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the Science Circle, a group of university and community members committed to advancing science at UCR and in Inland Southern California.

The talk is the third of five lectures scheduled this year. The lecture series, titled “The Science of Evolution: Life, the Earth, and the Universe,” aims to boost the public's awareness and understanding of how science works and break down some of the misunderstandings about what scientists do.

More information about the lecture series can be obtained by visiting, calling (951) 827-6555 or emailing Carol Lerner.

Teachers interested in receiving professional development credit for attending the lecture series must make arrangements in advance with University Extension.

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The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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