Evolutionary biologist speaks to history of the ginkgo tree, prioritizes long-term environmental mindsets


Daulton Venglar

Evolutionary biologist Sir Peter Crane discusses the Ginkgo tree and the history of the species in the Moffett Molecular Biology Building on Monday. 

Nicholas Velez

Evolutionary biologist Sir Peter Crane visited UT on Monday to spread the hopeful tale of how humans brought the ginkgo tree back from the brink of extinction.

The ginkgo tree is more than 200 million years old — it predates the dinosaurs and has changed very little since its original appearance. Nevertheless, the species almost went extinct after the last ice age. Today, the tree only grows in the wild in remote locations in China, but deliberate human efforts have revived the species to its current status as an urban staple.

Crane was awarded knighthood in 2003 for his service promoting public environmental awareness. He continues to advocate for sustainable development with his book, “Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot,” which explains the evolutionary and cultural biography of the ginkgo tree.

“It’s a good news story: a tree species that people have saved,” Crane said. “It is a plant that people have connected with. We know it and love it because it has been cultivated in gardens and along streets.”

Crane said plant biodiversity is endangered because of the massive amounts of deforestation occurring today, especially in industrializing nations. More species are going extinct today than in any other time during history.

“The problem is that we are not rebuilding what we take out,” said Katie Mueller, a biology and statistics junior who attended the lecture.

In order to reverse this trend, she recommends increased public awareness. 

“[We can] get people to realize that there are things disappearing that are special,” Mueller said. 

Crane emphasized the necessity of global cooperation.

“This is the shared cultural history of everyone — it is beyond borders,” Crane said. “These are international, not just national, problems.” 

Damon Waitt, director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, enlisted Crane precisely for this reason. 

“People like Peter bring international groups together to preserve and conserve genetic integrity,” Waitt said. “Who knows what kind of properties plants yet to be discovered may hold?”

Crane said people should consider both short-term and long-term obstacles to human development, and said there is not enough consideration of the long-term obstacles in this global society.

“The message of this book is about time,” Crane said. “We need to take a more sophisticated course of change. There are no easy answers. In order to understand the full breadth of complexity, we must take the broad view and the long view.”