Review – When Life Nearly Died

Cover of When Life Nearly Died by Michael J. BentonWhen Life Nearly Died, Michael J. Benton

For all that this purports to be about the end-Permian extinction — the greatest of the extinction events, where maybe 90% of living organisms were wiped out — this actually contains a lot more information about the end-Cretaceous. This makes some sense, because we have a much better understanding of what caused the end-Cretaceous extinction, and it helps that it’s also the most widely known and understood. People don’t really want to hear about the extinctions in the Permian, however much more disastrous, because the image of the extinction of the dinosaurs is so entrenched in our minds.

But I kind of did want to know about the end-Permian extinction, and I wasn’t so interested in chapters and chapters of set up, particularly when it came to the history of catastrophism. It’s enough that I grasp the concepts, and that they haven’t always been agreed upon or understood the way they are now — I don’t really want to know the personal details of loads of scientists’ lives. (Some are interesting characters in themselves. Some are not. Either way, I’m actually here for the end-Permian, not upheavals in Earth sciences.)

I was a bit staggered by a couple of assertions — “all organisms have DNA”, for example, including “the simplest virus”. But no: a virus contains RNA. It’s quite an important distinction, and shouldn’t have slipped past editors, particularly when the book does touch on heredity and descent. And then there was the rather bizarre idea that the Marie Celeste’s crew were struck by a burp of gas which killed them, made their bodies disappear, and left the ship itself untouched. Hm.

Mostly it seems reasonably solid, but bits like that made me raise my eyebrows a bit.

Rating: 2/5

2 thoughts on “Review – When Life Nearly Died

  1. The trouble with basic errors like the ones you point out is that it calls in to question everything the author says. I ran into this with Bill Bryson’s book on the history of English; I now can’t trust anything he says in any of his “factual” books.

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