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"When Life Nearly Died" does more than document this catastrophic event - it is also a history of developing ideas, explaining how we know what we know about geology and palaeontology, and laying bare the arguments and egos of scientists. Benton shows that this is not an arcane story of interest only to the scientific community - the implications of this mass extinction millions of years ago for the present-day biodiversity crisis are very relevant, so that the past can truly be a guide to the present and future life on Earth.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780500051160
ISBN-10: 050005116X
Format: Hardback
(234mm x 156mm x 32mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Thames & Hudson Ltd
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd
Publish Date: 10-Mar-2003
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


UK Kirkus Review » Say 'mass extinction' to most people, and they'll think of the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs. Yet that killed off just 50 per cent of all species on Earth. What's described here is what one author has called the 'mother of all mass extinctions'. It happened much further back, pre-dinosaurs: 251 million years ago, to be precise (and apparently we can be that precise). And it annihilated 90 to 95 per cent of all life. Over great tracts of the planet, the only life you would have found was a five-foot reptilian pig with an overbite (Lystrosaurus), a smaller pig, four kinds of clam, something else that looked like a clam but wasn't, and some mushrooms. Everything else was corpses, firewood, slime and pumice. Benton's quest to find out what happened is an eerie detective story, vivid and meticulously detailed. What lets it down is the use made of illustrations. John Sibbick's delicate little black-and-white pen drawings are brilliant, but they look like something out of a 1950s school textbook. Thames and Hudson should have gone the full coffee-table route: printed Sibbick's pictures three times the size, in full colour and, above all, plentifully labelled. What prehistoric worm, for instance, dug that burrow on p. 183, the one shaped like a squashed Christmas tree? And why no picture of Archosaurus, described in a throwaway line as the 'oldest member of ... the group that includes crocodiles and dinosaurs'? A succession of indistinguishable Victorian scientists in wing collars is a bit of an anticlimax when we could have been looking at the original dinosaur. What a story, though. Lystrosaurus was our distant ancestor. If a few primeval pigs had got food stuck in their throats, or caught colds, or just, well, failed to fancy each other, none of us would be here. Survival of the luckiest, indeed. (Kirkus UK)

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Author Biography - Michael Benton

Michael J. Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Head of Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. Among his most recent books are Vertebrate Palacontology, Basic Palaeontology and The Age of Dinosaurs in Russia and Mongolia (editor).

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