Non-Fiction Reviews

When Life Nearly Died

(2003) Michael J. Benton, Thames & Hudson, 16.95, pbk, 336 pp, ISBN 0-500-05116-X

Talk of mass extinctions and then nearly everyone thinks of the K/T extinction and the dinosaurs. Failing that, more enlightened folk think of our current whimper (as opposed to bang) extinction; but there were other extinctions, and some were of greater note. Of the five 'big ones' the greatest was the one in the Permian period some 251 million years ago. The Permian extinction was the biggest of the 'big ones' affecting multi-celled organisms (metazoans) with some 90% of species wiped out (other authors give an even higher figure so Benton cannot be accused of hype). In contrast the K/T dinosaur extinction probably wiped out about half metazoan species around at the time. Benton has done us a great service in reminding us of this event with his very readable account written at the proverbial New Scientist level but with extensive note references appended. He takes us through the history of palaeontology reviewing the key players (like Richard Owen and Roderick Murchison) and organizations (such as the London Geological Society) involved. Indeed for a while catastrophism was so positively dismissed by some leading lights (such as Lyell) that it made it virtually impossible for anyone to study mass extinctions within conventional science and so the existence of such extinctions lay unaccepted by the main body of the scientific community for some 150 years! The SF reader may therefore wonder whether similar 'editing' of scientific knowledge occurs today? (Well control of science does exist but the mechanisms in the main are different and arguably more subtle though nonetheless as real.)

Benton's review and analysis is written with great clarity. He includes solid references to our current (Holocene), human-induced extinction that makes the book most relevant to today. So if you are intrigued by global mass extinctions then get this for you library. I should perhaps point out that Benton fingers the Siberian Traps as the volcanic culprit behind the Permian extinction but has the wisdom to include a sound caveat as to a coincidental impact that might perhaps have provided the coup de grace. This was extremely prudent and for my money lends his work even greater authority for evidence emerged at the time of publication that there indeed was a Permian impact and that this may (possibly?) be associated with the extinction. Add this to Benton's mix and you have a scholarly but accessible account.

The other relevance is that the type of volcanic activity that led up to the Permian extinction is still with us today albeit on a smaller, though still a significant, scale today underneath Yellowstone National Park in the US.

Jonathan Cowie

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

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