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Extinctions: How Life Survives, Adapts and Evolves

30 May 2024

Extinctions – something dark and eerie comes to mind when we hear this word. Most books about extinctions cover what you would expect, detailing the consequences of cascading biogeochemical change or unwanted extraterrestrial rocky visitors on life that existed on our planet in deep time, but not this book. Here, the focus is on life, not death, during this lightspeed journey through its history on Earth. 

Benton’s brilliant writing style makes the book enjoyable to read for both palaeontology enthusiasts and Earth science novices. If you know all about the big five mass extinctions and hyperthermals already, you will be excited to know that they are painted here with broad brushstrokes only. However, the addition of the most current palaeontological discoveries will keep even the well-informed interested throughout. Benton does this with humour and has a refreshingly modern take on the key scientists who contributed to the field, and the weird and wonderful subjects of their discoveries. A novice, on the other hand, will be awestruck by the sheer scale of the story of life on our planet and how it survived and evolved over and over again, and left with their appetite whet for finding out more. 

The overarching message of Extinctions is that our knowledge of past hyperthermals and often connected extinction events is the key to understanding the possible effects of anthropogenic climate change on species extant today. However, we are not met with horrifying scenes of a ‘dicynodont world’ or made to imagine swimming in a ‘Strangelove ocean’ ‘under a green sky’ to evoke a sense of guilt and grief. Instead, Benton describes what we know, but lets the audience decide and draw the conclusions. He tells us the science in an understandable manner for non-professional audiences. His story is laced with juicy anecdotes from the history of science and saturated with his genuine love for life, or, as E.O. Wilson would have called it, biophilia. This successfully turns a serious subject into a light read, which will no doubt resonate with every reader. Extinctions empowers the reader to act instead of paralysing them, and highlights the relevance of the Earth sciences in tackling one of the most pressing problems of our time. 

Reviewed by Naomi Dawn



BY: Michael J. Benton (2023). Thames & Hudson. 304 pp. (hbk)

ISBN: 9780500025468

PRICE: £25.00 www.thamesandhudsonusa.com