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When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time

4.11  ·  Rating Details  ·  560 Ratings  ·  54 Reviews
Today it is common knowledge that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite impact 65 million years ago that killed half of all species then living. Far less well-known is a much greater catastrophe that took place at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago: 90 percent of life was destroyed, including saber-toothed reptiles and their rhinoceros-sized prey on ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published September 1st 2005 by Thames & Hudson (first published March 10th 2003)
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Hadrian
Jun 01, 2013 Hadrian rated it really liked it
The scientific consensus around what killed the dinosaurs is now a figment of public memory. It is this spectacular image of a meteor impact some sixty five million years ago which killed off half of all species of life on the planet, but also created new evolutionary opportunities, including the further adaptation of organisms in class Mammalia, including primates.

However, what isn't so commonly known is that there was another mass-extinction event c. 250 million years ago, which wiped out 90%
...more
Nikki
Feb 13, 2015 Nikki rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Lois Bujold
Dec 28, 2013 Lois Bujold rated it liked it
Recommends it for: persons with an interest in palaeontology beyond just dinosaurs
Recommended to Lois by: found while searching for The Cambrian Explosion

Pretty good, but suffered from being read right on the heels of the weightier and somewhat more literary Annals of the Former World. 12 chapters, of which 10 were history of the development of palaeontology as a science and other peripheral or contextual matters, and about 2 on the Permian and its end. I did not wish for less of the other material, but I would have liked more about the Permian-etc. The whole Life Before Dinosaurs scene is worth something large with color illustrations, although
...more
Jennifer
Nov 05, 2015 Jennifer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I love it when I find out a great mystery is solved, especially something that is near and dear to my heart. I am a geologist which means I live and breathe rocks for a living, and yet this was a topic I virtually knew nothing about.
One of the things that irked me during University was that it was recognized that the Permian extinction was the greatest ever the Earth had ever seen, but the reasons why and what caused it were never mentioned. The cause of the dinosaur extinction, on the other h
...more
Dougal
Mar 26, 2010 Dougal rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed this book but it does have some quite severe limitations. Firstly, although it is clearly pitched at the general reader, unless he has a background knowledge of Earth Sciences he would often be left scratching his head. In the first chapters, possibly up to about half way, the book explains basic geological and evolutionary concepts in simple terms and then, as the book progresses, it skips through more complicated areas with little or no explanation at all. Secondly, the bo ...more
Kate
Mar 25, 2011 Kate rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Palaeophiles, natural history lovers
Shelves: science
Wow, what a read. It's a little slow and dithering to start off, but once it gets rolling it's a fantastic read - almost a page turner. I do think it spends a little too long on the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction event, but then I guess that is the most popular, so a good place to start for a non-scientific audience.

The theories and data surrounding the End Permian extinction event are thoroughly covered, with no agenda behind any one of them. The discussion is fantastic, and the final descript
...more
Rita
Jun 30, 2016 Rita rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
250 million years ago the world was inconceivably different, life was still in it’s infancy and diversification was in it’s earliest stages but everything was abruptly cut short by a series of events that almost ended all life on the planet. This event is now known as the End-Permian mass extinction event or “The Great Dying” and it saw the end of 96% of all marine life and 90% of all terrestrial life, food chains broke down, evolution was suspended and life would take more than 100 million year ...more
Ross
Mar 23, 2015 Ross rated it liked it
Very interesting coverage of the mass extinction of life on land and in the sea that took place 251 million years ago. While the book is written for a general audience, I think it will only appeal to readers with a very substantial interest in the history of life on our little planet.
The book documents the fact that nearly all life was snuffed out, but maddeningly admits that we don't know what the cause(s) was. The various possible causes are discussed and what the evidence is that has been di
...more
John
Feb 10, 2012 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
A great long overdue book on the Permian mass extinction

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
...more
Darnell
Nov 13, 2015 Darnell rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Fascinating when the book is talking about the end-Permian extinction, but a surprisingly large majority of the book is history, context, and other extinction events.
Rob
Feb 22, 2015 Rob rated it really liked it
Firstly, Mike Benton is an incredibly active palaeontologist. He's written endless books and scientific papers, and he's even had a genus of rhynchosaur named after him. This guy knows his stuff, and he knows how to pitch his work at lay-people.

One problem with this book is that it begins quite slowly, and there are a few other chapters in the middle which begin slowly as well. Benton also goes a bit off-topic in parts, and the book could be arranged a little bit better.

When you put the minor ne
...more
Les
Feb 02, 2014 Les rated it liked it
First of all, I wish I could have given this book a better rating. It was absolutely fascinating and read somewhat like a detective story. What did wipe out an estimated 90% of all life on Earth 250 million years ago? And how do we know that any such thing actually happened?

This is not a casual read (unless, perhaps, you happen to be a paleontologist). It took me well over a month to read, with frequent breaks and frequent re-reading of some fairly technical topics to make sure I understood what
...more
Jonas Gehrlein
May 09, 2016 Jonas Gehrlein rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, biology
A historically based book about mass extinctions with quite compelling arguments for a perm-trias extinction based on gas hydrates and on how looking at extinctions in the past you can find out what will happen with the current extinction.
A bit tough to read but well worth it.
Christopher
Feb 08, 2014 Christopher rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
More of a 3.5 due to massive chapter variation but I'll round up because the topic is so cool.

The Permian mass extinction...what caused it and why did it wipe out 90-95% of all live on earth 250ish million years ago?

Well, going in to the book I already knew what the dominant theory was (which is largely upheld in the book), Siberian traps have massive continual eruptions over a space the size of western Europe for tens of thousands of years which led to enough warming to release frozen methane b
...more
Tanya
Jul 29, 2009 Tanya rated it it was amazing
Surprisingly accessible and does a great job of laying the historical groundwork of the science itself before launhing into a fascinating and frightening discussion of a mass extinction event. HIGHLY recommended.
Melissa
Mar 09, 2015 Melissa rated it it was amazing
Thorough and deep. Not a casual light right, but thoroughly sets the stage and educates on so much incredibly paleogeology and paleo-atmospherics to lead up to his theory of what caused the Permian End Extinction when 96% of all species on Earth became extinct.

Parts of it are extremely relevant since we are now in midst [RIGHT NOW] of the sixth largest extinction event on Earth, largely caused by humans, but - in my opinion - also partly caused by climate and ecosystem changes from the ending o
...more
Scot Fagerland
I do about half of my research online, buying books when I want a more complete or detailed account than what is freely available. The Permian-Triassic (P-T) extinction was one of the most significant events in Earth's natural history, yet it is surprisingly difficult to find books on the subject. Benton is recognized as an authority on the P-T extinction, and this book is widely cited.

I found the book to be heavily "padded", and felt that it was baiting me as a reader. After introducing the P-
...more
Last Ranger
Apr 05, 2015 Last Ranger rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Red Sandstone and Black Mudstone:

The most well known, and well studied, mass extinction is, of course, the KT event of 65 million years ago that saw the end of many kinds of organisms, including the dinosaurs. But in terms of lives lost it's the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr) event that holds the record for the largest extinction in history. In "When Life Nearly Died" paleontologists Michael J Benton provides us with an in-depth study of, not only the the P-Tr event itself but a detailed review of how
...more
Brie
Sep 24, 2013 Brie rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2013
Overall this was a fairly good book, though I did find myself skipping through paragraphs every once in awhile during the second half. I find the history of life fascinating, but unfortunately this book didn't grab me the way I had hoped.

Benton starts by touching on the history of geology and paleontology, with descriptions of the scientists and leading figures of the day. He then goes into the extinction everyone knows about, the dinosaurs. Once through with that he continues on to the end Perm
...more
KennyO
Apr 08, 2015 KennyO rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
WOW! I've only recently taken an amateur interest in geology but I've really spread my wings with this book that straddles geology and paleontology. Benton is an excellent writer (or at a minimum a really good writer with an exceptional editor) so he gives full measure in teaching his subject. I learned a boatload from this. The organization of the book is appropriately progressive, laying groundwork that supports all that's yet to come. It's not a rigorous science text, rather it's science pres ...more
Lolo Kramer
Mar 30, 2014 Lolo Kramer rated it really liked it
If you are interested in deep time, this is a great read on the Permian mass extinction. I skipped around as I don't really care much about the author's graduate studies or who thought what when. I enjoyed more the narrative of the extinction.
Jaap Hoogenboezem
Mar 08, 2016 Jaap Hoogenboezem rated it it was amazing
It takes a while before the book gets to the end-Permian mass extinction, which is supposed to be the topic of the book, but what comes before, an overview of the history of thinking about extinctions and catastrophism in geology, is fascinating because of the wild characters and ideas.
Paul Locke
Lots of interesting information interspersed in a great quantity of words

This book covers the history of paleontology in order to discuss the Premium extinction. I found it interesting but, in the whole, very wordy. If I were a student of paleontology I would have found the book much more engrossing.
Alden
Jan 31, 2015 Alden rated it really liked it
I like input. Lots of input. Give me a book full of interesting facts, deductions, theories and hypotheses, and I'm a happy camper. This book does that in spades. It is, in a word, meticulous. Discusses the history of scientific debates over catastrophism versus uniformitarianism, the birth and growth of palaeontology (it's British, spell checker. Leave the 'a'), the apparently grudging acceptance of massive impact craters and the 65-my old K-T extinction event, and then ties it all back to the ...more
Phil
Nov 22, 2014 Phil rated it really liked it
Dense material and well put together. I enjoyed reading about the late Permian mass extinction which very nearly rendered life as we know it void on this planet. Thank goodness Mother Nature has her sly ways and we are here to study, excavate and discover the reasons behind such a sad tale.Totally worth reading.
Krysti
Mar 26, 2014 Krysti rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book was incredibly dense. I would have to read it at least twice and have a few more geology classes to fully understand it. Even so, I learned a lot.

It gets increasingly technical until about 2/3rds through, describing the reasoning of why we know there was a huge extinction ~250 million years ago. Then a few chapters are like a personal journal which I didn't think added much to the book. The final chapter discusses whether or not we are in the middle of the sixth major extinction with
...more
Mikhail
I found it to be clumsy. There's the structure, with the sudden travelogue for a few pages in the middle. The redundant repetition of facts and ideas. The meandering, vague ending that tries but fails to find itself.

On the other hand, much of the information was new and interesting to me, and I actually enjoyed the travelogue section, but for my personal reasons - I spent my childhood in the described area.

So yeah, on the goodreads scale it's okay - content that could have been presented in a mu
...more
Jeff
Feb 14, 2009 Jeff rated it really liked it
I freely admit that i love books about destruction and change, and this book fits that category quite well. It's about the end-permian mass extinction 251 million years ago, which killed about 90% of all life on the planet. Beyond that, it's a history of paleontology and the scientific bullying that made catastrophism a dirty word for about 150 years. It can get pretty sciencey, but a fascinating read if you like being awed by nature, earth, and the grand cycles of destruction and recovery.
Diane
Feb 02, 2014 Diane rated it liked it
I give it three stars because it was easy to put down. You have to be in to the history of science to really enjoy it. Benton does a great job of explaining how science works. How our biases (the egos of men), the incomplete nature of the fossil record and therefore our understanding of the evidence changed with time. Benton spends at least as much time on that as the actual "event" of the Permian extinction. It's written for and should be easily understandable to the lay reader.
Jimagn
Mar 06, 2013 Jimagn rated it really liked it
The history of life on earth is full of contingencies, chaotic or random events and extinctions that determine the rest of the plot. This book describes the story in well written prose that keeps the reader engaged and coming back for more. There is plenty of detail and background material that support his conclusions and keep the story interesting. The way the conclusions are presented at the end is a little contrived, but the rest of the book makes for great reading.
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