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Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago Hardcover – February 19, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0691005249 ISBN-10: 0691005249
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Editorial Reviews


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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 19, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691005249
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691005249
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #802,707 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Harry Eagar VINE VOICE on November 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In Kentucky, there's a museum with a lifesize model of a dinosaur with a saddle on it. This is a hymn in fiberglass to young Earth creationism, the idea that the Universe was created about 6,000 years ago.

It costs $1,500 to become a charter member (family rate) of this museum. A much better investment would be $24.95 for Douglas Erwin's thriller about the Permian extinction.

More than nine-tenths of all species died out 251 million years ago. Erwin, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and the Santa Fe Institute, finds the end-Permian "enigma far more compelling than the end of the dinosaurs," a relatively minor event from 65 million years ago.

For an event that Kentuckians think never happened, the end-Permian event left a lot of debris, of which the most interesting is in China. Until 20 years ago, the paleontological record there was unknown to the outside world.

What the evidence is telling us is difficult to say. Erwin says "Extinction" was "frankly written as a mystery story." In this one, the clever detective does not wrap up all the loose ends on the last page.

Instead, we learn that there are at least seven major theories of what might have happened. These range from a big meteorite to gigantic volcanic eruptions in Siberia to a climatic or biological or geological change that drove oxygen out of the oceans.

The first chapters set the stage. Life was very different in the Permian. There were reefs in warm oceans, and they contained corals, but the corals were only distantly related to those of today and they were not as important as crinoids and lampshells, animals that still exist in out-of-the-way places.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on May 30, 2006
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.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Even kids now can tell you about the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. When I was a kid, the dinosaur extinction was a big mystery, but there has been good evidence, now broadly accepted, that 65 million years ago a meteor as big as a mountain smashed into the Yucatan, turning everything for miles around into ash, wrapping the world in a cloud, and blocking the sunlight that runs all life. Everything all over the world changed, and we mammals got our try at reproductive success. The horrendous extinction that ended the Cretaceous age, however, wasn't the worst our old Earth had seen. 250 million years ago, there was an extinction that ended the Permian and began the Triassic periods (which is also the border between the larger, more general Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras). This Permo-Triassic event extinguished around 95 percent of all living species, and was as close as we have ever come to having all life wiped out. In fact, in the 19th century, geologists thought that life had been wiped out and a separate creation had occurred to start the Triassic. What really happened, and how, are the subjects of _Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago_ (Princeton University Press) by Douglas H. Erwin, Senior Scientist and Curator of the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian. He has made the end-Permian mass extinction his research interest for the past twenty years, and has traveled all over the world to the fossil beds and geologic boundary layers remaining from around the time of the catastrophe. Looking back so many millions of years ago is not easy, and the picture is not as clear as that of the dinosaur extinction.Read more ›
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