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An enjoyable overview of the new science of "extinction".

  • Nov 12, 2010
Non-fiction titles generally lend themselves to summaries a little bit more easily than non-fiction and I'd be hard pressed to beat the information the publishers have provided on the back cover. In "Extinction: Bad Luck or Bad Genes", David M Raup has provided a layman's overview and discussion of the theories, assumptions and difficulties associated with the new, emerging science of the study of species extinction. A relatively lightweight, easy-going read (as science titles go), Raup has ended with the easily anticipated bet-hedging conclusion that extinction is generally a combination of bad luck and bad genes. But he did go so far as to lean strongly in the direction of bad luck, suggesting that most species "die because they are subjected to biological or physical stress not anticipated in their prior evolution and because time is not available for Darwinian natural selection to help them adapt." He summarized his thoughts by providing six generalities that, while sounding simple on their face, are still founded in considerable research and careful thought:

1. Species are temporary
2. Species with very small populations are easy to kill
3. Widespread species are hard to kill
4. The extinction of widespread species is favored by a first strike
5. The extinction of widespread species is favored by stresses not normally experienced by the species
6. The simultaneous extinction of many species requires stresses that cut across ecological lines

He also concluded that "wanton extinction" - selective extinction where some kinds of organisms survive preferentially but NOT because they are better adapted to their normal environment - was the primary ingredient in producing the kinds of results we see in the fossil record. For my money, this was the most interesting statement in the entire book because it seemed so fundamentally counter-intuitive!

All very interesting stuff indeed for those of us that enjoy paleontology and the topic of dinosaurs, in particular. But sadly, Raup's popular science writing suffers by comparison to the likes of Simon Winchester, Jay Ingram or Simon Singh who seem blessed with the ability to write about esoteric scientific topics positively lifting them off the page and compelling the reader to turn pages ever more quickly. That said, I'm happy to recommend it as a good read for those that enjoy their science-based non-fiction.

Paul Weiss

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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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Raup takes up a cocktail-party science topic--Why do entire branches of life "suddenly" (in geologic time) disappear?--and gives it weight and validity. Despite the catchy title, Raup's presentation is plenty rigorous, drawing in just enough geology, anthropology, biostatistics and yes, even the Alvarez meteor/earth cataclysm, to send readers looking for additional reading on current evolutionary theory. Fans of Stephen Jay Gould will find a similarly fluent and friendly lecture style here. University of Chicago professor Raup is coauthor of several standard graduate-level texts on paleontology and evolution. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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