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When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time

When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time [Kindle Edition]

Michael J. Benton
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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"Tells the story of how people--from Victorian times to the present--have wrested meaning from old rocks, bones, and shells. He tells us of rivalries and squabbles, and paints a vivid picture of science as a quintessentially human endeavor--an ongoing search for better understanding that by its very nature can never be finished."

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It is common knowledge that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite impact 65 million years ago that killed half of all species then living, but far less well-known is a much greater catastrophe that took place 251 million years ago: at least 90 per cent of life was destroyed, including sabre-toothed reptiles and their rhinoceros-sized prey, as well as vast numbers of fish and other species in the sea. This book documents not only what happened during this gigantic mass extinction, but also the recent reviving of the idea of catastrophism. Was the end-Permian event caused by the impact of a huge meteorite or comet, or by prolonged volcanic eruption in Siberia? The evidence has been accumulating through the 1990s and into the new millennium, and Michael Benton gives his verdict at the end of the volume. From field camps in Greenland and Russia to the laboratory bench, When Life Nearly Died involves geologists, palaeontologists, environmental modellers, geochemists, astronomers and experts on biodiversity and conservation. Their working methods are vividly described and explained, and the current disputes are revealed. The implications of our understanding of crises in the past for the current biodiversity crisis are also presented in detail.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5274 KB
  • Print Length: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Thames and Hudson Ltd; 1st Pbk. Ed edition (2 Jan 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00CRG77FG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #189,767 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catastrophies happen 27 Jun 2004
I read this while studying for my Geology exams - perhaps not the best study technique, but certainly more entertaining than the textbooks. Michael Benton presents an interesting topic in a way which is very accessible without becoming simplistic or patronising and brings the geology alive.
An earlier reviewer comments that the first few chapters are more general and not directly related to the end-Permian extinction which is the main topic of the book. That's a fair comment, but those chapters also set the scene for the reader who is not familiar with the progress of geological thought, and the real significance of the realisation that catastrophism does indeed have its place in the way we think about the history of the Earth.
In the mid-nineteenth century, and until the late twentieth, it was believed that geological processess were generally gradual, and that processes observed today could be used to explain geological events in the past. This came out of a rejection of biblical ideas of creation and floods, and was a good way to explain many geological phenomena. But occasionally, very major and unusual events do occur and geologists have perhaps struggled to accept the evidence before them because of these deep-seated beliefs.
From the discovery of plate tectonics in the sixties, through the understanding of mass extinctions in the eighties and nineties, the science has been turned on its head within my own lifetime. Its a fabulous time to being studying geology, and books like this which bring it to a general audience are to be applauded.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When Life Nearly Died by Michael Benton 7 May 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When one thinks about mass extinctions, the Cretaceous-Tertiary event clearly comes to mind. A mass of literature and media-hype ensures that everyone is well acquainted with the demise of the dinosaurs that resulted from a large asteroid impact, often visualised in many a book or television programme by a rather surprised Tyrannosaurus or shocked Triceratops being swept away by either a massive shockwave or tsunami.
Subsequently, it is refreshing and reassuring to actually find a piece of text actually concerned with a mass extinction that appears to have had the most decimating effect on metazoan life ever detailed in the Phanerozoic, the Permo-Triassic extinction. Well it’s about time, but why the wait?
Benton addresses this reason adequately from the start of the book, giving a clear account of how generations of earth scientists have been shoe-horned into adapting a prose of thinking instigated by Charles Lyell. This involved believing that there has always been a regular consistency in the history of the Earth, that no processes can be involved that are not immediately observable on a day to day basis, i.e. ‘the present is the key to the past’. To suggest mass-extinctions, momentous periods of volcanic activity and occasional asteroid impacts would result in being allocated to the ‘crackpot wing’. Therefore, the acceptance that mass-extinctions have occurred is a very recent acceptance in the field of Earth Sciences, none more so that the Permo-Triassic extinction.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fabulous flatulence! 12 July 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
The public is being subjected to a litany of accounts of how life can, and has been, eliminated en masse. After learning ice ages may have swept away numerous creatures, we discovered dinosaurs may have been wiped out by the Big Rock. While trying to comprehend the amount of life an asteroid can dispose of, Michael Benton demonstrates the numbers pale in comparison to what a Big Burp can achieve. Combining his own field work with the research from numerous others, Benton skilfully builds a scenario of real mass destruction. His fine prose style keeps this book a compelling read throughout.
Sharply criticising Darwin's contemporaries and successors for clinging too resolutely to the notion that Nature's forces merely creep along, Benton notes the persistence of one theme. The "uniformitarians", he says, blinded scholars to the evidence - evidence that suggested life could end suddenly. Charles Lyell, one of Charles Darwin's inspirations, argued that what is seen today typifies the entire, and lengthy, history of our world. Slow, gradual change on today's surface is but the most recent example of the panorama of millions of years. Sudden change, "catastrophism", promoted by Baron Cuvier in France, was false. In life, Darwin's evolution by natural selection reflected the gradualist theme.
Benton dismisses Lyell and his adherents as overcommitted to gradualism. He contends they shut their eyes to contrary evidence. He admits the data was less than readily apparent, but argues some questions should have been raised long before now. New research, sometimes in places already once observed, finally brought reassessment. The Ural Mountains in Russia offered the first clues. Roderick Murchison toured there in the 1840s, naming the "Permian System" of rocks.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to put down
The book is absolutely brilliant, from start to finish. Not only did it improve my understanding on the extinction events of the Permian but really did improve my understanding of... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Robbie
4.0 out of 5 stars An insight into how science works
This is a clearly and solidly written setting out the processes in palaentology and geology leading to the discovery of mass extinctions before proceeding to details of the Permian... Read more
Published 3 months ago by AVIDRDR
I am a musician but read a lot of science, needless to say, science for the masses. But I like to learn as much as possible, and especially not be talked down to. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Arlene Clarke Thiel
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book
This is a fantastic book. The way the book is built-up makes is ingenuous and it makes you want to read the next page, and so on. I read this book in 2 days.
Published on 6 July 2011 by Eric le rouge
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable and informative
This is a very enjoyable book for the interested amateur, accessible and gives a picture of the painstaking process of palaeontology. Read more
Published on 9 May 2011 by PJW Griffin
3.0 out of 5 stars Critters Entombed in the strata
This is mostly a book about palaeontology, geological sequences and the critters we find entombed in the strata. Much of it is quite dry and reads like a textbook. Read more
Published on 31 Aug 2007 by A. Gothorp
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
I read this book expecting what I actually found: an excellent explanation of one of the most intriguing events of our past as members of this unique and extraordinary world. Read more
Published on 17 Jun 2004 by Paulo Félix
3.0 out of 5 stars Slow starter
For most of us, the idea of mass extinction brings to mind the end-Cretacious wiping out of the dinosaurs. Read more
Published on 20 Nov 2003 by Tara Saunders
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