- 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: 1,450,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- See Complete Table of Contents
Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago Paperback – 21 Apr 2008
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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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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.
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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
In that respect, the sub-title is misleading. Instead of "How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago", it should have said "Ideas about How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago".
Erwin also does not go into some of the more intriguing concepts bandied about regarding the recovery from that extinction. For instance, why is it that the major reptilian group to emerge from the event, the dinosaurs, were so efficient at using oxygen? Evolutionary pressures driven by an extended period of low atmospheric oxygen favored them it seems - yet he does not really discuss this aspect at all.
I was very impressed with how Erwin brought together the details of the work now being done at the Permian Triassic boundary but I did not find the book very satisfying from the larger perspective.
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