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Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago Paperback – 21 Apr 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (21 April 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691136289
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691136288
  • Product Dimensions: 22.1 x 15.3 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,602,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description


One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2006

"Theories and mysteries can be dispelled with good data from the geologic record, and Erwin (a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History) offers an authoritative account of the search for these data and for the cause of the extinction. . . . Extinction provides a great reference for researchers and the interested lay reader alike."--Andrew M. Bush, Science

"Extinction is a very enjoyable read. . . . It provides a thoroughly up-to-date account of the causes of the end-Permian event and the developments in the field since 1993 as seen through the eyes of one of the key players. . . . Extinction leaves the reader with the (accurate) picture that here is a scientist whose work has significantly advanced our understanding of the greatest extinction event known to science. . . . [A] readable and scholarly account."--Richard J. Twitchett, American Scientist

"Douglas Erwin's geological mystery story is engrossing. It contains a tribute to the scientific method--and also the collaborations of research. The book ends with Erwin warning that the Earth is arguably entering another mass extinction period, this time unnatural and man-made. And this time the destruction may well be total."--Lucy Sussex, The Age (Sunday edition)

"Douglas Erwin describes how life on Earth was nearly destroyed at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago. . . . The author . . . explain[s] what this paleontological, as well as geological, evidence can tell scientists about the dramatic and deadly shift in the Earth's environment."--Science News

"Douglas H. Erwin, a Smithsonian paleobiologist and one of the leading experts on the Permian extinction has meticulously sifted through the evidence. . . . His accessible new book, Extinction--written, it seems, both to persuade his colleagues and to educate a lay audience--is told from the perspective of a forensic scientist trying to piece together a quarter-billion-year-old crime scene."--Joshua Foer, Washington Post Book World

"No one can tell this story better than Douglas Erwin. His book is a superbly written account of what we know about the Permian extinctions. . . . More than a geological story, this book is an excellent model of how science addresses complicated questions."--Choice

"This book does not justify a single, accepted causal sequence of events . . . to account for the end-Permian extinction. Instead, Erwin dissects the evidence for and against each hypothesis, impartially weighing their strengths and weaknesses. Although this book may frustrate readers expecting to learn how life nearly ended 250 million years ago, it will reward them with a fascinating case study in scientific inference, a case that remains very much open."--John P. Hunter, Quarterly Review of Biology

"Erwin's book is science writing for the general public at its best and most lucid. Entertaining, informative, and thought provoking."--Northeastern Naturalist

"Erwin offers a thorough overview of one of the most interesting problems in earth history. . . . Erwin takes the readers on an insider's journey that includes adventures in the field, tedious hours in the laboratory, and stimulating but sometimes contentious exchanges among colleagues at scientific meetings. He gives rigorous consideration to every reasonable hypothesis. . . . Erwin's short course is a professional service for geologists (like me) who have read only some of the primary literature on the end-Permian extinction."--Stephen O. Moshier, Books & Culture

"For scientists as well as general educated readers, this book enlightens its readers to the complexity of the largest biological crisis the earth has yet seen."--H.J.M. Meijer, PalArch's Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

"I recommend Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago to scientists and nonscientists alike. It provides a clear, comprehensive, and compelling introduction to the greatest catastrophe in the history of animal life and proposes a reasonable hypothesis for the cause of the extinction that will undoubtedly be tested vigorously with new data in the coming decade."--Jonathan L. Payne, Complexity

From the Back Cover

"Douglas Erwin blends careful scholarship and graceful prose in this authoritative elucidation of Earth's greatest mass extinction. Although framed in terms of hypotheses and their tests, Erwin's story unfolds as a gripping who-done-it for the ages."--Andrew H. Knoll, Harvard University, author of Life on a Young Planet

"Douglas Erwin is the world's leading expert on the end-Permian extinction. This book will be the standard reference on this crucial event in the history of life. It is a wonderful example of science in action."--Richard Bambach, Virginia Tech

"This book provides an up-to-date review and critical appraisal of all we know about the end-Permian mass extinction, a subject that has drawn much popular attention. Complementing its solid scholarship, its friendly style enables educated general readers to get to grips with all the current debates."--Paul Wignall, University of Leeds, author of Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermaths

"In conversational prose, Douglas Erwin provides a useful roadmap to a complex scientific subject--an up-to-date treatment of the end-Permian extinction."--Michael J. Foote, University of Chicago

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Format: Hardcover
Any scientist who opens [and closes!] a book by saying "We [I] don't know!" is worthy of your attention and respect. Too many others have taken up a theme and defended against all comers. Erwin's examination of the catastrophic close of the Permian Age is complete, admirably researched and exquisitely written. Within its pages, this work examines the various ideas on the massive loss of life 250 million years ago. These days, not to have heard of an meteor's killing off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago suggests you've lived hidden in a cave for a generation. Erwin opens with a brief overview of that event, reminding us that extinctions, particularly "impact events", have loomed large in discussions of the history of life ever since Walter and Luis Alvarez proposed the idea.

It's easy to rattle off the numbers: when the dinosaurs "went West", perhaps 75% of life was also extinguished. When the Permian ended, over 95% of living things disappeared. Erwin asks: "How do we know this? What life forms disappeared? Did they all go at the same time? How long did it take to recover?" Most important, of course, "What killed them off?" Instead of dull statistics, Erwin asks the important questions. Acknowledging that "Triassic rocks are boring", he explains why this is so. Fossils are scarce is the obvious answer, but why they are missing is his quest. With most of his attention focussed on ocean life, he details what causes shifts in benthic populations. The seas rise and fall - for a variety of reasons. Glaciation takes up sea water and leaves continental shelves high and dry. Oceans need to "turn over" an oxygen supply. What is the result of that failing? Carbon, with its various isotopes, passes through life selectively. Tracing that path provides insights into where it's been - and where not.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was somewhat disappointed by the book. And not because of the subject which could not be more interesting: What happened at the end of the Permian (c.250 million years ago) and over 95% of all living organisms became extinct? The problem nags paleontologists for decades and no thoroughly satisfying scientific explanation is in view.
So, why the disappointment? Firstly, I was expecting a more biological approach instead of the physics/chemistry/geology one I got. I understand of course that a problem of this magnitude covers, by default, multiple scientific disciplines, but that did little to alleviate the difficulty I had, navigating many of the book's passages. And I stayed positively starved from the point of biology. Only one or two of the period's various complex ecosystems and food webs are described in some detail. There are additional biological glimpses, in various chapters, lost in a sea of Geology and Climate data, but I was expecting much more in that line.
Secondly we have a problem of structuring. The author in the first chapters presents, in summary, the various proposed theories about the whys and how's of this tremendous extinction (extensive volcanism, giant meteor(s), oceanic anoxia etc.) but then fails to develop each theory in detail in a consistent manner e.g. one per chapter. Of course he touches them within the book but again I did not manage to get a good grasp of the pros and cons of each scientific proposal. The final chapters try to summarize things and present the author's personal pet theory, but the whole point is somewhat muddled.
The text is well written, the subject is definitely hot, the data are mostly there but you have a rough time structuring them in order to gain a measure of systematic knowledge. And the biological data poverty does not help a bit.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program) 4.2 out of 5 stars 24 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reading the Earth's History From the Rocks 4 Nov. 2013
By Ralph D. Hermansen - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The title of the book is "Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago" and the author is Douglas H. Erwin. Our planet has a sometimes very violent history, which is recorded in its rock strata. How do we decipher it? Geology is one major discipline with the tools, whereas paleontology is another. Strata record a chronology of the Earth based on the premise that older strata lie beneath younger strata. Scientists have compared strata from around the world and matched up similar time periods (i.e.; identical strata). Multi-cell plants and animals have left their fossils in the last half billion years of the Earth's history. Three major divisions (eras) became evident to scientists: the Paleozoic Era, the Mesozoic Era, and the Cenozoic Era. The first era contains the story of primitive multi-cell animals, first fishes, first amphibians, and first reptiles. Then the mother of all global extinctions occurred and wiped out 95% of all species. The next era (Mesozoic) was the age of the dinosaurs and it lasted well over 120 million years. Again, a global extinction wiped out the dinosaurs and several other species. Since that mass extinction event 65 million years ago, new kinds of animals have repopulated the Earth, namely mammals and birds. This book focuses on that major extinction at the end of the Paleozoic and teaches what science can deduce about it.

That end-Paleozoic transition is named the Permo-Triassic extinction. The name comes from the last period in the Paleozoic (the Permian) and the first period in the Mesozoic (the Triassic). We are talking about an event that happened one quarter of a billion years ago. The task is extremely challenging because the surface of the Earth is remodeled continuously by erosion, mountain building, subduction of ocean sea floor plates, and other geological processes. The author has done a thorough job of providing the reader with an understanding of the tools available to attack the problem. These tools include radioisotope dating techniques, paleontology considerations, the carbon cycle, which can be used to evaluate conditions in the distant past by measuring the relative amounts of C12 and C13. The author liberally gives credit to the many individual scientists each working on a aspect of the bigger problem. He also examines the different hypotheses that have attempted to explain what caused the mass extinction.

Professionals, such as geologists and paleontologists, would be likely to buy this book because they will acquire a powerful reference tool. Moreover, they would make the purchase, knowing in advance, that they can understand the vernicular of the extinction scientist. For others less specialized, the jargon could be an obstacle to understanding the book's contents. Dr. Erwin does attempt to explain the technology to the novice readers and does a good job of it. However, sometimes he forgets that this audience exists and seems to be communicating with his peers alone. The book has photos, charts, graphs and other visual aids which help clarify the textual messages. The extinction was a global event, but there are only a few places on the Earth where evidence still exists. Consequently, the author takes us to China, South Africa, the Rocky Mountains, and other places where he can support his narrative with evidence and examples.

The author presents arguments for the several different hypotheses explaining the great extinction, but does not lock on to any particular one as the best hypothesis. He gives an unbiased voice to each of them, with cautionary comments to the readers about obvious flaws in the reasoning or new evidence which negates previous scientific beliefs. Thus, the book is an unbiased account of what science has been able to learn about the Permo-Triassic extinction. I felt that I learned a lot about mass extinctions in general and this extinction in particular. I know that I should reread it at some future time to better lock in my understanding of the book's contents. Hopefully, you can decide from my review whether or not you would want to learn what this book has to teach you.

Ralph D. Hermansen, November 4, 2013
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For Scientist and non-Scientist alike 15 Feb. 2012
By Alexander - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The author does a fine job explaining the possible causation of the Permo-Triassic extinction. He keeps the necessary technical babble to a minimum, making this book (mostly) accessible to any lay person. Some of the charts were confusing to me, but I got the gist of things. The chapters are well organized, and his method of making the book a "geological mystery" is very well executed.

I also appreciate the author's introspective style; he doesn't have all the answers, nor does he pretend to. Credit is given to fellow geologists for their field and lab work, and overall the reader gets a good sense of life (and death) on this planet 250 million years ago.

If I were a paleontologist, no doubt this would be a 5 star read. As is, it's an excellent overview of a very intriguing period of time in our planet's history that anyone can enjoy, regardless of their level of knowledge for the subject at hand.

I am keeping this book nearby as I plan to re-read it in the near future; I found it that engaging.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real science mystery 18 May 2009
By Arnold - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book reads like a murder mystery, with the victim being 95% of all marine life and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates species. This crime, the Permian Extinction, occurred over 250 million years ago but still has not been solved. The author Douglas Erwin, a paleobiologist who has been working on the extinction for the past few decades, identifies identifies possible culprits and the known evidence, but ultimately comes to no conclusion. This makes the book both exciting and fresh (even three years after its initial publication).

Erwin names six possible culprits to the extinction:

1) a meteor/comet impact, similar to the one that killed the dinosaurs;
2) climatic changes from massive volcanic flood basalts in Siberia;
3) invasion of invasive species following the creation of the supercontinent Pangea;
4) glaciations causing global cooling and a fall in sea level;
5) disappearance of oxygen from the oceans (anoxia); and
6) a combination of the above.

Because the extinction happened so quickly (estimated less than 160,000 years), he suggests that explanation 3, 4, and 6 are less likely. He also isn't convinced by the evidence of a large meteor impact (1) around this time. Furthermore, explanation 5 does not account for the extinctions on land. Thus, the book tentatively concludes that the volcanic flood basalts seem to have played the largest role in the extinction, perhaps by causing runaway global warming.

This is a science book, not a book about the scientists. Too many popular books about paleontology, especially those written by journalists, seem to focus on the scientists themselves rather than the actual science. Fortunately, Erwin goes deep into the scientific evidence and presents detailed arguments for each explanation.

Perhaps more important than the hard scientific evidence (which may well become outdated by the time you read the book, if it hasn't already), Erwin does a magnificent job showing the process and reasoning that goes into collecting and interpreting the evidence. Rather than state his interpretation of the evidence, Erwin takes the reader through the existing evidence and the questions or concerns he has with it. Most of the book consists of his summary of paleobiologists' toolkit and the research on the Permian extinction. He only brings the evidence together to discuss the potential culprits in the last few chapters. However, by writing the book this way, the reader is able to assess the evidence for himself.

Erwin's style also encourages readers to keep a healthy sense of doubt, especially since more than once he admits his past positions on the extinction were probably wrong. In fact, he does suggest that more evidence regarding a meteor impact has recently emerged and may contradict his "preferred" theory.

Overall this is a very interesting book, but is a long read, especially for those readers who - like me - have no formal training in paleontology or geology. However, the books provides a great science education for those willing to put in the time.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250M Yrs Ago 20 Dec. 2009
By Thomas E. Williams - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
While the subject matter in the book may seem a bit dry to some, and lacks the pizzazz of the story of the Dinosaur Killer Asteroid at the end of the Cretacious, I have found it quite riveting. Dr Erwin obviously knows his stuff on the subject, and has put together a truly excellent rundown on current popular theories of how it all happened. He goes the full extent of being fair and pretty unbiased as to what was the proximate cause of the most extensive extinction event in Earth's history. He goes into very extensive detail on the different theories; the meteor impact, general climate change, ocean water anoxia, and several other possible causes of the disaster. This is not a book for those who are the average reader. It is quite scholarly, and remarkably succinct in describing the possible causes and effects of things that happened back then. A great detective story, but you need to be able to handle a book that describes a truly important event, but without many great moments if you're the type of person who likes their history in great moments.
I'm quite glad I bought it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great summary of the state of our current understanding of the Permo-Triassic extinction, and extinction in general 28 Nov. 2013
By e-wing - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I got this book from the library, and decided to buy it afterward as a reference. Erwin does a good job of being objective and presenting all the arguments equally. I've seen some people upset that he doesn't give a definitive answer, but that's not how this type of science works. The events described happened 250+ million years ago, and Erwin gives the reader enough information to have an informed opinion on the topic, and expresses his personal opinions in non-intrusive way, as to not present too much of a bias.
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