Non-Fiction Reviews

Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities: The Causes of Mass Extinctions

(2004) Tony Hallam, Oxford University Press, 8.99, pbk, 226 +xiii pp, ISBN 0-192-80668-8


Planetary change, apocalypses and indeed mass extinctions are all tropes or sub-tropes within science fiction. Consequently for the scientist into SF an understanding of how these really happen, and indeed how this understanding is elucidated. Actually I had a real life instance of this confusion between science and SF when I was an undergraduate. We had an essay to write on environmental change and it just happened that it was due in one week after the Alveraz paper that covered evidence (the iridium layer) that an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs. I cited this paper in my essay on which my tutor wrote 'enough of this science fiction'. (I subsequently gave my tutor an Alveraz off-print and the essay got re-graded, so all's well that ends well.) But this tale does demonstrate how easily concepts that are covered by SF segue into science, and vice-versa. Consequently this book we have real appeal to those into both science and SF. It also will prove of great help to SF writers whose work occasionally returns to biosphere management and/or evolution.

We need to remember that the flipside of biological conservation is, with the ying-yang of life and death, biological extinction. The big granddaddies of such events are mass extinctions of which an understanding is an essential part of the science underpinning conservation, and doubly important for our Holocene society and ourselves. Indeed some suggest that the term 'Anthropocene' is in one sense a more important a term for our geological time, given that our species is both perturbing the biosphere and the cause of our current mass extinction of mega-fauna as well as, as it now seems increasingly likely, a variety of marine calcareous species. In this light Tony Hallam's lightening tour of the major mass extinctions is most welcome.

Tony Hallam looks primarily at 14 of the largest extinction events since the end of the Precambrian. He cites the likely causes of extinctions in successive chapters relating each cause to their possible or not, contribution to the big extinctions before bringing the threads together in a quick summary and a (rather brief) comment as to our present predicament.

His book is easy to read and pitched at a first year undergraduate level that is also suitable for proverbial New Scientist readers. As such it should be on the introductory reading lists some university courses sent to school leavers and here those embarking on whole-organism biological, environmental science and geology courses should be encouraged to get this. In fact all the more so as this is the much cheaper paperback edition of the 2004 hardback, which in itself makes it an economic informative background read for more established scientists, or SF authors, whose work in one sense or another might well relate to extinction events.

One small caveat though, one that applies to all introductory texts that relate to science over which there is some debate (not just Hallam's), in that overview texts do not cover all the complexities. Tony Hallam's perspective is a decidedly geological one: though there is nothing wrong with that and it does life scientists (indeed all scientists) good to see matters from a different viewpoint. However what it does mean is that interpretation and nuance may vary from discipline to discipline and even individual experts. Personally I would have given more time to the Toarcian and Eocene extinction events given current climate change concerns but then that is me. Also I tend a little more towards Michael Benton's (whom Hallam cites) views of the End-Permian but then, as I said, the subject is open to some discussion and Tony Hallam's view is certainly no less worthy and clearly the End-Permian is something close to his academic heart. Consequently students recommended this text need to be encouraged to read it and then think for themselves. This last is something that sometimes we forget in today's occasionally mass-fact regurgitation dominated education regimen. SF-loving scientists also need to pause to think: something that our fast-paced, many facts on a multi-media plate society tends to undermine. Here Tony Hallam has opened a door. Make proper use of it and enjoy.

Jonathan Cowie

A different version of this review has appeared in the journal Biologist.

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