Extinction : Bad Genes or Bad Luck?

4.07 (100 ratings by Goodreads)
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What brings about the extinction of a species? Is it a genetic flaw or a run of really bad luck? All scientists agree on the fact of extinction, but science has never agreed on its physical causes. From the traditional theory of climatic change to the controversial theory of meteorites, this book investigates each possibility and puts the arguments for and against. Questioning much of the conventional wisdom, this book makes a number of claims, including a theory that blames all significant extinctions on falling meteorites.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 227 pages
  • 120 x 190mm | 170g
  • Oxford University Press
  • Oxford Paperbacks
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • New edition
  • New edition
  • line drawings, tables, bibliography
  • 0192861581
  • 9780192861580

Table of contents

Part 1 Almost all species are extinct: is extinction important? bad genes or bad luck? the nature of extinction; who studies extinction? a word about the word; species defined; the purpose of extinction, if any. Part 2 A brief history of life: origin of life; complex life; the quality of the fossil record; 600 million years of fussing; a stock market analogy; trilobite eyes; tropical reefs; flying reptiles; human evolution; living fossils. Part 3 Gambler's ruin and other problems: gambling; concepts of randomness; gambling for survival; differing extinction and speciation rates; skewed histograms; other models; a note on extinction of surnames. Part 4 Mass extinctions: the K-T mass extinction; measuring extinction; a note on killing; duration of mass extinctions; do mass extinctions differ from background; the kill curve. Part 5 Selectivity of extinction: Ice Age Blitzkrieg; selectivity of the Blitzkrieg; body size and the K-T extinction; other examples of bias; other examples of selectivity; the Trilobites' bad genes; some implications; summary. Part 6 The search for causes: the rarity of extinction; just so stories; beware of anthropomorphism!; the kill curve revisited. Part 7 Biological causes of extinction: are species and ecosystems fragile? the case of the heath hen; importance of the first strike; problems of small populations; competition; species-area effects; species-area and past extinctions; the great American interchange; the history of tropical rain forests. Part 8 Physical causes of extinction: traditional favourites; sea level and climate; species-area effects; testing sea level and climate; the Pleistocene experience; exotic physical causes; unheard-of volcanism; cosmic causes. Part 9 Rocks falling out of the sky: cratering rates; destructive power; Alvarez and the K-T extinction; periodicity of extinction and nemesis. Part 10 Could all the extinctions be caused by meteorite impact? plausibility arguments; arguments from observation; extinctions are linked to craters; extinctions are not linked to craters; assessment. Part 11 Perspectives on extinction: how to become extinct; wanton extinction; the role of extinction in evolution; bad genes or bad luck?; a note on extinctions today. Epilogue: did we choose a safe planet?.show more

Review Text

A remarkably candid book on what we know and (mostly) what we don't know about evolution and extinction. Raup, a "statistical" paleontologist at the Univ. of Chicago, is best known for his popular exposition of a theory that extinctions come in 25-million-year cycles, an idea that spawned the notion that the sun had a dark companion ("Nemesis") that periodically triggered cometary showers that wrecked havoc on earth. Maybe not Nemesis, Raup says, but he still holds out for periodicity and mass killing via meteor impact. Before reviewing theories of extinction, Raup provides useful insights and details on evolution and a number of tables illustrating time scales, percentages of organisms dying, etc., as well as a philosophical discussion of the value of extinction. He argues that an extinction-free world might not lead to as much diversity as the world has enjoyed. We can't be sure, but would birds or whales or humans have evolved in the absence of the terrain created after mass killings of other species? Everywhere, he urges caution - the data are not available; people are distressingly anthropomorphic as well as suspicious of unearthly theories of extinction. In a wonderful tour de force, he lays out the arguments and counterarguments for the theory that large impact craters are the cause for mass extinctions. Both sides are convincing. In the end, Raup makes a strong case that extinction is necessary for evolution and largely blind to the fitness of organisms. A first strike, such as human intervention or an epidemic disease, may trigger the beginning of extinction. So may bad genes. But, overall, bad luck is more likely. While the book is important for what it has to say about life on earth, it is also a marvelous exposition of think and double-think in science. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

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100 ratings
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