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When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time Hardcover – May 1, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson; First Edition edition (May 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 050005116X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500051160
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #294,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


'A great tale, beautifully told' - Niles Eldredge, American Museum of Natural History, author of Reinventing Darwin, Life in the Balance and Triumph of Evolution. 'Michael Benton's splendid book brings back to Earth Science a sense of adventure... It is both a wonderfully good read and a valued reference' - James Lovelock, author of Gaia and Homage to Gaia

About the Author

Michael Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. His most recent publications include Vertebrate Palaeontology and Basic Palaeontology (with David Harper); he was also editor of The Age of Dinosaurs in Russia and Mongolia, the first account in the West of some of the extraordinary fossils found in these regions.

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Customer Reviews

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I recommend this book for its history contents alone.
Jimmy Porter
His book title implies that the thrust of his interest will be with one that was the largest, the one that closed out the Permian, nearly 250 million years ago.
Martin Asiner
He also gave a very clear and unbiased account of other scientists' work and how their efforts fit into the whole picture.
Atheen M. Wilson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

104 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Atheen M. Wilson on July 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael J. Benton's text, When Life Nearly Died, is superb. The topic of the book is the end-Permian extinction, an event less known to the average reader but of far greater impact than that of the KT boundary extinction of the dinosaurs. Although not necessarily as emotively compelling or as dramatic as the latter, the Permian devastation left the planet with only 4-10% of its previous species. It was a bottleneck of major consequence for subsequent biodiversity.

I would recommend this volume to any general reader with an interest in paleontology and earth history. The book covers the early history of geology and especially the biographies and activities of those researchers who helped define the rock sequences which every student memorizes: Precambrian, Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, and Tertiary. He focuses particularly on those who clarified the facies of the Permian and Triassic and brought to light the fact that "something funny" was going on then.

Although no real background in geology is needed to comprehend the narrative, I suspect that most will find the first chapters more interesting than later ones. The author touches upon subjects like uniformitarianism and catastrophism and the disagreement between them and upon the scientific free-for-all that arises over new theories like the impact demise of the dinosaurs, making them quite clear for the average reader. He subsequently builds upon the basics he has provided to carry one through his thesis. Once he gets into the actual discussion about the causes of the Permian event, however, the discussion settles down to chemistry, especially atmospheric and oceanic chemistry: how they work, how they interact, and how they can go horribly wrong.
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38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By John Kwok HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on April 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Distinguished vertebrate paleontologist Michael J. Benton's latest book, "When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction Of All Time", is a long overdue popular account of the worst mass extinction in Earth's history, the end Permian extinction of approximately 251 million years ago. Other customers have complained that this book only devotes less than a quarter of its text to the Permian extinction. However, Benton does an elegant job describing the rise of a uniformitarian view of geology in the 19th Century (One major omission is not citing Scottish geologist James Hutton, who can be regarded correctly as Charles Lyell's intellectual precursor with respect to uniformitarianism.) which was eloquent expressed and defended by Charles Lyell in "Principles of Geology", his influential text on geology which helped shaped the careers of other distinguished scientists, most notably Charles Darwin. Next Benton gives a mesmerizing account of the career of Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison, who coined the name Permian for a suite of rocks found in the Ural Mountains of Russia. These lengthy digressions are important - and will become apparent to the astute reader - once Benton describes the Permian mass extinction.
The second third of the book discusses the nature of mass extinctions, describing why paleontologists were inclined originally to think of mass extinctions as the result of apparent bias in sampling of the fossil record, not as real events denoting substantial loss of the Earth's biodiversity. Benton devotes much space to discussing possible scenarios for the end Cretaceous mass extinction, noting that that the asteroid impact theory proposed by Luis Alvarez, his son Walter, and their colleagues at Berkeley is the one accepted now by scientists.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By William Morse on May 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed the history of geology and especially the
history of establishing the Permian age itself. I
liked the thorough discussion of the Russian sites,
but as a geoscience professional I am probably more
inclined to this than the average reader. There was
also a good discussion of the KT event (that wiped out
the dinosaurs) and several other extinction events.
My gripe is that when he finally got around to the PTr
(Permian - Triassic)event, he basically explained why
certain hypothoses were not good, but didn't really
give a strong hypothesis of his own. Maybe that is
because the evidence is not good enough to have a strong
hypothosis, but the title is misleading in that case.
Overall, I recommend the book as a history of geology
and the Permian specifically, but don't expect to come
away with a real answer.
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90 of 106 people found the following review helpful By M. A Michaud on July 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book's title implies that it is primarily about the end Permian extinction, the largest known to science. In fact, direct discussion of that event occupies less than twenty per cent of the text. Much of the rest is a history of scientific ideas about the history of life and the great extinctions, with considerable attention to the individuals who advocated them. While the book is written in a readable style, the reader may be frustrated by the author's cautiousness in drawing conclusions about the Big One. The book ends with a discussion of what Benton calls the Sixth Extinction, caused by human activity, implying that it is comparable to the one at the end of the Permian. While this has become fashionable in popularized books about science, we haven't come near the Permian extinction level - yet.
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