Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction

(2019) Paul Wignall, Oxford University Press, £8.99 / Can$21.00 / US$11.95, pbk, xiix + 124pp, ISBN 978-0-198-880728-5


This is another concentrated burst of information in OUP's excellent ' A Very Short Introduction…' series and one of those likely to be of interest not only to bioscientists and geoscientists but those into science and science fiction.  After all, the idea of extinction is an SF trope.  I think it was Brian Aldiss who said something like if plants in a garden die then it is mundane fiction, but if plants die in gardens all over the world then it is science fiction.

Yet, as Paul Wignall notes, only a couple of centuries ago the notion of species extinction did not exist: it was thought that species were fixed, they did not evolve and did not die out.  Yet we now know that extinctions do happen and can be dramatic such as the most famous dinosaur extinction at the end of the cretaceous (the K/T [Cretaceous-Tertiary] or K-Pg [Cretaceous/Paleogene] extinction as it is now known with the new nomenclature).  As said, in SF not only do we have extinction events, we also have near-extinction events and this itself is such a common trope that it has given rise to its own genre sub-class: post-apocalyptic fiction.

But what of extinctions in real life (if that is not a tautology)? This is where Paul Wignall's Extinction: A Very Short Introduction comes in.

He begins with an exploration of some of the ecological aspects of extinctions such as species area relationships (the larger the area the more species are likely to be accommodated) and this neatly leads into habitat loss.  Invasive species (taking over a habitat killing others) and human impacts are also examined.

However it is the extinctions across deep (geological) time that are as much likely to interest the scientist-into-SF reader and much of Wignall's short book has this focus and delivers. He looks at both small events as well as the big ones. It transpires that the K/T or K-Pg dinosaur extinction from a meteorite is a rarity in the little over the past half a billion years period of Earth's multi-cellular life.  Far more common are the occasional creation of massive seas of lava (large igneous provinces or LIPs) that release huge amounts of gas that affect the climate and acidity, as well as oxygenation, of the oceans.  LIPs, it transpires, are related to both the large mass extinctions as well as many of the lesser ones.

Towards the book's end, Wignall turns to our Quaternary ice age of the past two million years and its cycles of cool glacials and short, warm interglacials (like our current Holocene of the past 11,000 years). These glacial-interglacial cycles themselves have had an ecological impact. Yet our current and the previous one have also seen the rise and spread of our tool wielding Homo species which seems to have been (causally) concomitant with the disappearance of large species of animals (mega fauna).  Indeed, a number of our early cousin species of Homo have died out and it is likely that environmental change was a key factor.

Finally, Wingall touches, briefly, on the current extinction slowly but surely taking place due to human action and our growing population.  The topic of extinctions has never been more relevant.

It goes without saying that this is a very useful booklet for those that want to quickly grasp the bare basics of extinctions. Though I think that some might benefit from a short glossary of terms.  Nonetheless, not only will this booklet be of interest, as I have mentioned, to SF aficionados with a fascination for, and seeking an understanding of, the real science behind the genre, but university students who's studies may have another focus but which may yet have a short module or just a single lecture on extinctions. Indeed, given recent news as to the decline of textbook sales in both Britain and the US I do wonder (almost fear) that this booklet series might be a part replacement of longer texts. While I fear this (we do need longer, detailed works), there is most certainly a place for short, cheap primers to topics. (I myself, for a number of years, was a co-commissioning editor of the 'Studies in Biology' series of short texts.)   This 'A Very Short Introduction' series does fit the bill.

Jonathan Cowie


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