• When Life Nearly Died

  • The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time
  • By: Michael J. Benton
  • Narrated by: Julian Elfer
  • Length: 11 hrs and 33 mins
  • 4.4 out of 5 stars (102 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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. It is far less widely understood that a much greater catastrophe took place at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago: at least 90 percent of life on earth was destroyed.

When Life Nearly Died documents not only what happened during this gigantic mass extinction, but also the recent renewal of the idea of catastrophism: the theory that changes in the earth's crust were brought about suddenly in the past by phenomena that cannot be observed today. Was the end-Permian event caused by the impact of a huge meteorite or comet or by prolonged volcanic eruption in Siberia? The evidence has been accumulating, and Michael J. Benton gives his verdict at the end of the volume.

The new edition brings the study of the greatest mass extinction of all time thoroughly up-to-date. In the years since the book was originally published, hundreds of geologists and paleontologists have been investigating all aspects of how life could be driven to the brink of annihilation, and especially how life recovered afterward, providing the foundations of modern ecosystems.

©2003, 2008, 2015 Thames & Hudson Ltd (P)2020 Tantor
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

What listeners say about When Life Nearly Died

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Obscurity to Enlightenment - A Mystery Revealed

This is quite a fascinating book IF you are into the minutiae of paleontology research. If not, move on to the next book on your Wish List, as this book goes into great detail of the processes that were followed in coming to the point where the reasons behind the End-Permian Extinction became mostly clear and a reasonably accurate timeline for that event was massaged out of obscure details hidden in the geology of Earth. While I'm not generally enthralled by such detailed explanations, I do enjoy peeking behind the curtains to get a glimpse of how people figure out such things as what the climate was like on the planet 250,000 years ago, how researchers know the age of a particular species that's from a particular geological time period, in this case, the Permian Period, how it's possible to get a big picture of an ancient Earth based on layers of rocks from one locale compared to layers of rocks in two or three other locales on the other side of the planet, etc, etc.

The first two chapters were a bit of a slog as the author gives a history of the researchers from the early nineteenth century who laid a foundation for the work that followed in the latter part of the twentieth and first part of the twenty-first centuries. Tedious stuff, but worth the patience required to get through it in the long run. Some time ago I had listened to "T. Rex And The Crater Of Doom" by Walter Alvarez about the process he and his fellow researchers used in uncovering the events which were the cause of the demise of the dinosaurs, the impact of the Chicxulub meteor. That was a great first listen in introducing me to some of the thinking and the processes which go into such work as is detailed in "When Life Nearly Died." This is an interesting book of discovery based on the most subtle of evidence imaginable.

A word about the reader, Julian Elfer. He is incredible. How he manages to effortlessly pronounce these unbelievably tongue twisting names of all these ancient critters and all of their family names and the like, with such clarity is remarkable. He sounds as if paleontology has been his lifelong work. However, it is clear it is not as he is the reader of well over 100 books in the Audible library. That doesn't leave much time for a very time consuming secondary vocation such as geology and paleontology. Also, he didn't miss a beat when quoting Russian paleontologists in their native tongue. This is the first time in all of my time with Audible that I've followed up listening to a book by checking out what other works the reader has available, and I've listened to over 60 books. He's a gem.

13 people found this helpful

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Very little on end Permian extinction

Half way through the book and basically nothing on the end Permian extinction. Lots on the history of geology and other extinctions but nothing on what the title implies. Maybe the second half the author will get around to the actual title subject.

4 people found this helpful

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In the hands of a Professional Paleontologist

Michael J. Benton is a consummate scientist and his story of the first extinction event that occurred over 252 million years ago is a brilliant and highly in depth research into this world changing event. The narrator, Julian Elfer does the perfect job of putting you into the world that Michael Benton walks you through to discover the facts. If detail is something you prefer not to be part of the story, then I would recommend another book. For me the detail added value to the entire learning experience. I am not a scientist, but after taking the time to research some of the unfamiliar topics, it became very clear how valid Michael's research is. This book is not for the general reader, but is written to a higher level of knowledge. I am looking forward to listening to this audio again. It would have been easier with a downloadable PDF's of the time lines and fossil examples which I had to locate on my own. Now that I understand the events of the first extinction, I have developed deeper understanding into the other 5 major events. I also recommend "T REX and the Crater of Doom". This audio is for the general reader. I highly recommend both.

3 people found this helpful

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Mostly dull with interesting snippets scattered throughout.

A fascinating subject rendered nearly unbearably boring by endless descriptions of the history of the scientists and their meticulous studies, rather than focusing on what Permian life was like, and hardly any sense of the extinction event, just more history of scientific theories and why they were all wrong. Spoiler Alert: although the author finds a theory involving volcanic activity the most persuasive, he won’t commit, and suggests that a number of factors, or unknown events as well, could have caused the greatest extinction of all time. Only one chapter is devoted to the event itself. Most of the book is really a history of the scientific community and fads in their theories. Yawn. Not for the average layman, meant for fellow researchers. I admit I learned more about geologic strata and rock composition than I ever wanted to know. Ditto for Latin names of innumerable extinct marine life, primarily invertebrates. I guess I was hoping for more about the fearsome Gorgonopsis and adorable dicynodonts, but there were only a handful of references, mostly about which museums have the best collections. Absolutely no sense of what life was like in those ancient time’s. A real missed opportunity.

2 people found this helpful

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Needs more detail about the Permian

As someone that listens to a lot of books about historical geology this was good, but it didn't spend as much time in the Permian as I had hoped the author would.

1 person found this helpful

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Topic does not match the Title.

I had to return this book. The subject matter did not match the title. It is more of history of archeology, geology and paleontology than a book about mass extinction. The book was really boring. This is only the second time I've ever returned a book. By your beware.

1 person found this helpful

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Very Worthwhile - I enjoyed it

I deeply enjoyed this alternating narrative and chronicle of the author's model of the development of the current explanation of the "Big Five" mass extinctions, focusing mostly on The Big Kahuna, #4, the End Permian (?sp) extinction. I found the book to alternate between important but challenging specifics of what appeared when, and wonderful narratives of the author and others visiting (or failing to get permission to visit) far-off, important locations. I particularly liked the otherwise very sad story of a creature who woke up to find he was in the middle of the End Permian. It helped me visualize the details like nothing else in the book. I admit a huge bias toward non-North-American english speakers - I found the narrator's accent constantly delightful. What a pleasure to listen to! I only regret losing 90% of the details - but the lessons I think will stay with me.

1 person found this helpful

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Mass Extinction: A Scientific Exploration

Nicely detailed yet understandable book about the end Permian extinction. The author details the Orient Express theory of the cause of this catastrophe, and explains each element and how they interacted. Recommended highly if you are interested in the subject. Narrator is easy to listen to; he sounds interested and doesn't mispronounce scientific names and terms.

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An honest approach to popular science

What caused the Permian extinction? It's an open scientific question, and as a working paleontologist Michael Benton has his own point of view in the matter, which he presents here. That raises issues of conflict of interest that authors of popular science books are not always scrupulous about. For example, if you write a book about particle physics starting from the ground up, assuming that your readers don't know anything about it, and your punchline is that your favorite speculative framework is where physics had been going all along, if it had but known it, you're doing something problematic --say if you write a book about string theory and call it The Elegant Universe. After all, you're talking to people who you've already stipulated have no background in the field, and so have to believe whatever you tell them.

Michael J. Benton approaches this problem with painstaking honesty, and in doing so gives a much more realistic picture of how science is actually done than popular books usually do. He begins by explaining how the views of geologists and paleontologists have evolved over time, for example the longstanding bias towards gradualism. This illustrates how difficult it is to get perspective on a scientific subject, and how important it is to do the work: find evidence, analyze it correctly, and discuss it in a rational way. That's particularly difficult in cases like this, where you depend on data (the fossil record) and phenomena that aren't reproducible. It isn't like physics or chemistry.

Benton goes into surprising detail. Reading it won't make you a professional paleontologist, but it will give you a feeling for the evidence. When he presents his own point of view he doesn't give it undue weight, and you have a fair chance to evaluate his proposal in light of what's currently known. He isn't pulling rabbits out of hats. It's a masterly account, very well written and organized, showing full respect for his readers.

Julian Elfer's narration is excellent. There are few readers who seem at all suited to popular science, or history, for that matter -- most of them are actually unlistenable, to my taste. Elfer presents the material in a direct, transparent manner, without drawing attention to himself. But you can't fail to notice how much he gets right. He doesn't mispronounce the terminology, and he's very good at languages. (In fact, he makes an effort to say "Tokyo" in something approximating a Japanese manner.) The only exception I noticed was the way he said "Alvarez." He's just very, very good.

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Fascinating story

I think I read this book when first written and released back in the early 1990s. I enjoyed listening to it this time around. Excellent performance and updating. The ending, with speculations on exactly how many unknown species are out there really was thought-provoking. The world did — apparently just barely— the end Permian, worst extinction event on this planet’s history. We just don’t know if the same will ever be said about what is to come. Most likely the species known as Homo sapiens will not be there as a witness 🤪