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

4.4 out of 5 stars 61 customer reviews

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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 J. Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol. His many previous books include standard reference works, textbooks, and popular books on dinosaurs and the history of life.

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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: 0.7 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #863,453 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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Format: Hardcover
Dr. Michael Benton, an eminent vertebrate paleontologist, has authored many books on the subject. This is one of his finest.
In this book, Dr. Benton addresses the multiple quandaries underlying mass extinctions, and ever-continuing, sometimes controversial, even acrimonious, effort to solve them. As per his high standards, Dr. Benton's text is highly readable, even though complex problems are being analyzed. He introduces the reader to alien or new concepts capably, and the text forms a seamless web along which any reader having a limited exposure to scientific disciplines may proceed without strenuous effort.
NOTE: Although the book's title appears to indicate a rather exclusive discussion about the largest mass extinction, the Permian-Triassic event, which ended the Paleozoic Era and ushered in the Mesozoic, the actual scope of the book is more broad. This is a pleasant, and very helpful, surprise.
Dr. Benton begins with the discovery of dinosaurs, and the history of the mapping of Europe's stratigraphy, before moving into the area of mass extinctions. Without this preliminary discussion, it would be far more difficult to understand how the concept and science of these events developed. I view this as a positive aspect of the book, since the concept of catastrophic events affecting the course of life's progress was most difficult for pioneers in the field to accept. The text admirably demonstrates that science is, after all, a human endeavor, complete with feuds, rivalries, and disputes. Indeed, much scientific progress has been achieved via disagreements and attempt to disprove the opponent's theories. I recommend this discussion to the students of ANY scientific discipline, not just paleontology.
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