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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catastrophies happen
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...
Published on 27 Jun. 2004 by Cathryn Symons

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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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. The idea of an in-depth examination of the earlier, more catastrophic end-Permian event fascinated me.
Unfortunately, this book didn't quite satisfy. As an enthusiastic amateur, I found the beginning chapters to be over-heavy on the history of geology and...
Published on 20 Nov. 2003 by Tara Saunders


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35 of 35 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
By 
Garry Paton "Garry Paton" (Germany) - See all my reviews
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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.
As a geology student, I was always taught the transition in faunas and floras over the Permo-Triassic boundary was a long, gradual affair, caused by the simple event of the cohesion of continents to form Pangaea, resulting in a significant loss in habitat and mass extinction in the marine environment. Simple as that. On land? That was a certain ‘grey area’, to say the least.

Appreciatively, this issue is resolved at long last. This book brings together a compendium of valid, relevant information. This includes analytical studies of exposed stratigraphy across the Permo-Triassic boundary in China, Greenland and Russia that has given a wonderful opportunity to analyse the concurrent sedimentology and evident palaeontology. Also involved is a wide range of intricate isotope and radiometric work. The result is fascinating. Something truly devastating did actually occur approximately 251 million years ago and like a classic case of bad luck it appears to have happened three times concurrently.
I thoroughly recommend this book to any individual who may have an interest in the Earth Sciences, whether layman or academic. The text is smooth and reads well, Benton clearly has the ability to transfer information in a clear and concise fashion that ultimately proves to be addictive reading. I consider this book to be a benchmark in Earth Sciences literature in that it acts as an effective summary at this present moment in time (at going to press!) on what is actually known about the Permo-Triassic extinction. It’s a great piece of work and it’s a joy to read.
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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 (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
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. Wars and revolutions interrupted the surveys and geologists and paleontologists peered at new ground. The Great Karoo of South Africa, China and other sites provided new information. A gradually emerging picture revealed a massive die-off 251 million years ago. What had happened?
After a long introduction of chapters recounting the researchers and their findings around the planet, Benton dismisses the notion of a bolide impact. This idea, fostered by the discovery that the Dinosaur Era had likely been concluded by the impact of a 10 kilometre asteroid, wasn't matched by the evidence. While the Permian Extinction may have been accompanied by darkened skies and deluges of rain, the real killer was something else. The dinosaur extinction wasn't typified by massive intrusions of poisonous gases, but the Permian was another matter. Benton surmises that 251 million years ago a series of volcanic fissures spewed immense waves of lava over the land near the North Pole. This area, now known as Siberia, is still covered by the remnants of the outburst. With the lava came noxious gas, mostly carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. These "greenhouse" gases warmed the seas, releasing life-killing methane. The catastrophe may have killed off up to 96% of all living things.
This is not simply an arcane analysis of events in the ancient past. It's a book that should gain a wide readership, since the events of all those millions of years ago have implications for today. Benton notes the sediments at the bottom of our seas contain a build-up of methane equalling or exceeding that of the Permian. Today's human-spurred global warming may be leading to the same scenario. Extinction, Benton reminds us, isn't limited to dinosaurs or other ancient life. It is clear that we must learn how these mechanisms work to make rational decisions about our dealings with the biosphere. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book, 17 Jun. 2004
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. Both technically informed and well written, "When Life Nearly Died" gives the reader an understandable description of how life was before the event, how it was affected by it and what constraints influenced its subsequent development.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slow starter, 20 Nov. 2003
By 
Tara Saunders (Derry, NI) - See all my reviews
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For most of us, the idea of mass extinction brings to mind the end-Cretacious wiping out of the dinosaurs. The idea of an in-depth examination of the earlier, more catastrophic end-Permian event fascinated me.
Unfortunately, this book didn't quite satisfy. As an enthusiastic amateur, I found the beginning chapters to be over-heavy on the history of geology and archaeology and almost devoid of information on the issues prompting me to buy the book.
When the account really got going, about one third in, the information and perspectives were meaty and fascinating. The writer provides a wealth of information, and carefully constructs theories based on this solidly evidenced footing. The question of the cause of the extinction never is entirely answered, but the evidence provided certainly is convincing.
If the writer had cut the beginning third of this book, the remaining chapters would have been well worth the rave.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Critters Entombed in the strata, 31 Aug. 2007
By 
A. Gothorp - See all my reviews
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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. Michael Benton is professor of vertebrate palaeontology and a prolific writer of textbooks, unfortunately this attempt at reaching a wider audience falls short of the mark.

The book starts with several overlong biographies of the main players in geology and palaeontology over the last two hundred years. The idea was to set the scene and show how attitudes to catastrophism (sudden mass extinctions resulting from geophysical events rather than gradual processes) have changed in the scientific community, but out of the many characters we were introduced to, I only remember Murchison and Lyell. This section really needed to be much more succinct.

The vast majority of the remainder of the book is about examining rock sequences at the Permo-Triassic boundary and investigating the fossil record at this time. The idea is to gather evidence to explain the sudden reduction in biodiversity at the end of the Permian. Unfortunately actual postulation on the event that caused this is only about 3 or 4 pages in length.

When Benton describes a Russian field trip from a more personal travelogue perspective, the writing is much better as he describes the train journeys in Russia, the people and the food. This was good and injected some much needed life into the script. Unfortunately Benton doesn't stay on this tack for long. More writing of this nature would have made the book much more appealing.

At the end of the book we move onto current trends in biodiversity and modern human influence on the environment and the current rate of extinction of species. There are some interesting facts here, such as how entomologists struggle to estimate the number of species of insect that live on our planet in the present day. The number of species living in the ocean depths can only be statistically `guessed' at. This is quite interesting stuff but seems to have been thrown in at the end and is not really relevant to the title of the book.

All is not lost however, and I found some of the content of interest, especially what geologists look for as evidence for ancient meteorite impacts. That's not to give game away because Benton does not associate the mass dying at the Permo-Triassic boundary to an extraterrestrial impact.

In Summary:
There are some interesting facts here but you'll have to be prepared to read a lot of dry, textbook detail to find them. The title of the book is a sales driven misnomer because the actual event is only tackled on about 4 to 5 pages at the end. Overall not a book I would particularly recommend unless palaeontology is your scene.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Great subject - the biggest mass extinction - very badly written, and out-of-date, 7 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time (Kindle Edition)
a fascinating subject, why so disappointing? first, Benton is just not a very good science writer (there are many far better). for example, this has obviously been cobbled together in haste, from previous bits and bobs, no-one has edited it - result, more and more repetition of the stuff he knows, less and less about the stuff he keeps promising to tell us, like what caused the biggest mass extinction? and he keeps changing his mind - was it one main event, or several, over thousands or millions of years ? if several, by unlucky chance, or chain reaction ?
second, Benton is a fossils man - paleontology. he is not a geologist, so he is focussed on the evidence (species loss) not the cause or timing. he gets quite a lot of the important geology wrong. nor is he a geographer (doesn't even know what directions major European cities are from each other!), or especially a paleogeographer - which is what you need to make sense of where all the continents and oceans were at the end-Permian. and thus what climate impacts might be on different species.
thirdly, the book is pathetically badly illustrated. take out drawings of ancient beasts, and pics of fossils, and you have just one tiny-scale map of the continents, hard to decipher. you have a few geological sections of the crucial event, but badly presented and inconsistent. you have no maps or illustrations of these localities. he has been two trips to the key sites in the Urals - making no new discoveries worth telling us - but hasn't visited the world type section in China (there will have been several conference tours to it) or key sites in Italy etc etc.
finally, this is nearly all hack work, third-hand stuff - relying heavily on not just obscure academic papers buton previous books, whether about the history of geology (catastrophists-v-uniformitarians, yawn after the nth retread), or about recent research. and it's now badly out of date.
I'm mo expert, and haven't read up latest work yet, but my thought was - no meteorite crater found, but biggest lava outpourings ever (Siberian Traps), and huge methane releases - maybe an impact cracked the crust releasing lava which filled its crater ! now to look it up..
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to put down, 19 Jun. 2014
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This review is from: When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time (Kindle Edition)
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 the events of the K-T boundary.
As a first year geology student I would recommend this to anyone interested/studying geology, it really gives a great overview of geology. I only wish I read this book before coming to university and sitting my exams.
If you enjoy this book would also recommend you read some of steve brusatte work, fantastic author and lecturer (Lectured me)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable and informative, 9 May 2011
By 
PJW Griffin (staffs,uk) - See all my reviews
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This is a very enjoyable book for the interested amateur, accessible and gives a picture of the painstaking process of palaeontology. It also makes the current complacency about possible climate change less tenable, and evokes that shiver of contemplation when you fleetingly glimpse the depth of time and the scale of events discussed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT SCIENCE FOR THE NON SCIENTIST, 27 Mar. 2013
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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. This book was wonderful, full of fascinating information, and full of terrifying lessons for our future. Our Earth is quite a machine and we had better respect
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