An animated and absorbing account into “how life has survived mass extinctions so far…and what we need to do to make sure humans don’t perish in the next one.”
Massive catastrophes leading to extinctions have already visited Earth at least five times, writes science writer Newitz (co-editor: She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff, 2006), who suggests we must distill all the strategies humans have used in the past and fashion a projection of them into the future—plus a whole new bag of tricks to devise from scratch so as to get by. Humans are the lucky ones, writes the author; we can live almost anywhere and eat nearly anything, and we tell stories, which contain experiences that will help save us. We are also able to wander, like our besieged ancestors fanning out of Africa 70,000 years ago, to fit in elsewhere. Newitz begins with an exceptional tour through the latest thinking on the great extinctions of the past, giving a wide-ranging view of exactly what extinction means. It doesn’t necessarily require a decline in numbers but can mean a “depression of speciation,” as when an invasive species wipes out all the other species. To the claim that we are headed for the most cataclysmic extinction of all, the author counters that that distinction likely belongs to the Permian period’s “Great Dying,” 250 million years ago, when more than 95 percent of the species on the planet died. She closes with hope, if not exactly completely convincing optimism: “Things are going to get weird. There may be horrific disasters, and many lives will be lost. But don’t worry. As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive.”
Humans may be experts at destroying the planet, but we are no slouches at preserving it, either, and Newitz’s shrewd speculations are heartening.