i-10092cedc7be5d8a5cb3f10bec59f6b5-lifedied.jpgWhen Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time is a book by Michael Benton on the Permian Extinction now out in paperback. From the press release:

Today it is common knowledge that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite impact sixty-five million years ago, which killed half of all species then living.

Far less well-known is a much bigger catastrophe – the greatest mass extinction of all time – which occurred 251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period. In this cataclysm, at least ninety per cent of life was destroyed, both on land, including sabre-toothed reptiles and their rhinoceros-sized prey, and in the sea.

After the event the Earth was a cold, airless place, with only one or two species eking out a poor existence. What caused destruction on such an unimaginable scale, and how did life recover?

Michael Benton’s book about this catastrophe – When Life Nearly Died: the greatest mass extinction of all time – has been published in paperback this week. Michael Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol.

James Lovelock said of the book: “Michael Benton’s book brings back to Earth Science a sense of adventure … it is both a wonderfully good read and a valued reference”.

When Life Nearly Died documents not only what happened 251 million years ago, but also the recent rekindling of the idea of catastrophism, after it was seemingly extinguished in a great battle of ideas in the early nineteenth century. Scientists have at last come to accept that the world has been subject to huge cataclysms in the past. For the end-Permian event the killing models are controversial – was the agent the impact of a huge meteorite or comet over ten kilometres in diameter, or prolonged volcanic eruption in Siberia? The evidence has been accumulating through the 1990s and into the new millennium, and Michael Benton gives his verdict at the very end of this book.

~ A repost for Back to School Special ~


  1. #1 chris y
    September 13, 2010

    After the event the Earth was a cold, airless place, with only one or two species eking out a poor existence.

    Um, what? One or two species? Good thing for us one of them was a synapsid then. Presumably the other one gave rise to all the other phyla by an extraordinary effort of convergence on earlier forms.

    Isn’t the 90% (-ish) number taken from Sepkovski’s analysis of families? So it’s a fairly inaccurate guide to the number of species that succumbed at best.

  2. #2 Jason
    September 13, 2010

    Chris, I was thinking the same thing… what an obvious mistake.

  3. #3 stripey_cat
    September 13, 2010

    How the heck do we know what was happening to the bacteria and archaea of the period? Damn Eukaryote prejudices!

  4. #4 Markk
    September 13, 2010

    Douglas Erwin’s book “Extinction” about this event I have always considered one of the great descriptions of the back and forth of scientific theories to be written. It is aimed at an adult and informed reader. I’ve never read Benton but I thought I would plug another wonderful book about the same subject.

  5. #5 Kris Rhodes
    September 13, 2010

    Erwin’s book isn’t particularly dynamic, but it is informative. Worth reading if you’re interested in the end Permian.

    On the other hand, the number of wild inaccuracies and mistruths in this press release make me want to never read the book in question.

  6. #6 Omega Centauri
    September 13, 2010

    I gotta second Kris. “Airless” ? Yes we can count fossil species before/after, but still having 10% of species left is still a living planet. And X percent of species in no way implies that net biomass was also at X percent. This sounds more like sensationalism, rather than sober science.

  7. #7 MadScientist
    September 13, 2010

    No air? None of this nitrogen or oxygen? Well, I’ll have to see the evidence for that.

  8. #8 travc
    September 13, 2010

    Yeah, that description of the book has some whoppers in it. Though the Permian Crash (at least that is the name I learned for it back in the day) really was pretty damn catastrophic.

    A few quibbles…

    Um, will vertebrate paleo folks (and many other people) please realize that by far most species are single celled. Even among the multicellular, the majority fossilize at rates far far lower than the bony few. 90% of species which we know of from fossils went extinct at the end of the Permian, but that does not mean 90% of all species!

    Also, the Permian almost certainly wasn’t the greatest mass extinction event… it was the greatest that fossil forming life actually survived. Farther back there were almost certainly “world killer” events which wiped everything out. The relevant phrase is “impact frustration of the origin of life”.

    Oh, and for the Permian ending event, I particularly like the “big impact creates the Siberian Traps (antipodal)”. Seems to be the theory which best survives Occam’s razor at this point.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    September 13, 2010

    “”big impact creates the Siberian Traps (antipodal)”.”

    I just want to put on record that when that hypothesis was first proposed some time ago, I immediately loved it. Just sayin’

  10. #10 william e emba
    September 14, 2010

    Benton’s book was “now out in paperback” in 2005.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    September 14, 2010

    William: Yes, and this post is one of a handful of reposts of book notices or reviews that I’m doing for Back to School Month.