Raup’s former students and colleagues uniformly praised his unique creativity along with his astute capabilities as an academic adviser, senior colleague and paleontological statesman. They remember him for the sweeping scope of the questions he asked, his analytical and quantitative rigor, and his skepticism and humility.Good Science Writers: David Raup]. His book, Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? (1991), is one of my top five books on evolution [Top Five Books on Evolution]. Here's a quotation from the introduction to that book ...
“David Raup ushered in a renaissance in paleontology,” said Raup’s former student and colleague Charles Marshall, SM’86, PhD’89, director of the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology and professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “Before Dave, much of the discipline was centered on describing what was. Dave taught the discipline to think about the processes that might have generated the past record.”
Raup introduced statistical concepts to paleontology that treated the fossil record as an outcome of yet-to-be-discovered processes. Raup was widely known for the new approaches he brought repeatedly to paleontology, such as extensive computation, modern evolutionary biology, theoretical ecology and mathematical modeling.
As Marshall put it, Raup created new intellectual space for paleontology. “That was, in my opinion, his greatest contribution. It is not that Dave just transformed the discipline, but his students, and their students, continue to fill and expand that space,” Marshall said.
Another former student and colleague, Michael Foote, expressed similar sentiments.
“By any conception of what it means to be influential, Dave was one of the most influential paleontologists active during the second half of the 20th century,” said Foote, SM’88, PhD’89, a professor in geophysical sciences at UChicago. “In the areas he chose to touch, nobody, in my view, surpassed him.”
I have taken the title of this book from a research article I published in Spain some years ago. I was concerned then with the failure of trilobites in the Paleozoic era. Starting about 570 million years ago, these complex, crab-like organisms dominated life on ocean bottoms—at least they dominated the fossil assemblages of that age. But through the 325 million years of the Paleozoic era, trilobites dwindled in numbers and variety, finally disappearing completely in the mass extinction that ended the era, about 245 million years ago.If you don't already own a copy of that book, you should buy one right now and read it. They may not be easy to get in the future and your life will be poorer if you don't learn about the difference between bad genes and bad luck.
My question in Spain is the one I still ask: Why? Did the trilobites do something wrong? Were they fundamentally inferior organisms? Were they stupid? Or did they just have the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? The first alternative, bad genes, could be manifested by things like susceptibility to disease, lack of good sensory perception, or poor reproductive capacity. The second, bad luck, could be a freak catastrophe that eliminated all life in areas where tilobites happened to be living. The question is basically one of nature versus nurture. Is proneness to extinction an inherent property of a species—a weakness—or does it depend on vagaries of chance in a risk-ridden world?
Of course, the problem is more complex than I have presented it, just as the nature-nurture question in human behavior is complex. But in both situations, nature (Genetics) and nurture (environment) operate to some degree, and the challenge is to find out which process dominates and whether the imbalance varies in time and space. (pp. 5-6)
Raup is famous for the Field of Bullets analogy to explain why extinction is as much bad luck as bad genes. He made a strong case for his belief that chance plays an important role in the history of life. He was not alone in making this claim but it doesn't seem to be popular these days for reasons that confound me. It's part of what I call Evolution by Accident. It means that if you replay the tape of life, things will come out very differently and there's no guarantee that sentient beings like ourselves will evolve [see Café Scientifique: Replaying the tape of life]. You don't have to agree with Raup, Gould, and other experts but if you want to participate in discussions of evolution you have to be familiar with this important concept.