The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses,
Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions
Author Peter Brannen is an award winning science journalist. This is his first book as the rest of his work has been in print and electronic news media. He has been recognized as the 2015 journalist-inresidence at Duke University and in 2011 as a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutions Ocean Science Journalism Fellow.
After an introduction, The Ends of the World follows with the first chapter called, Beginnings. Brannen recounts a brief run through the early earth history of complex life including 635 million year old sponges, the Ediacaran fauna at 579 MYA and the Cambrian explosion. Earth’s history and life on this planet is “not the story of Homo sapiens” as Brannen puts it (page 15). The next five chapters cover the big five mass extinctions chronologically and in detail.
The end Ordovician mass extinction was the second largest in earth history. Brannen’s research into the Ordovician began with attendance at a meeting of the Dry Dredgers in September of 2015. He also attended the field trip the following day into northern Kentucky. Based upon his comments and how often he referred to the Dry Dredgers, he was apparently impressed by the group.
What makes The Ends of the World a good book is the research that Brannen has done to produce it. In each chapter of the book he has interviewed the people who are at the forefront of research on the topic in question. Names familiar to the Dry Dredgers include Professor Thomas Algeo from the University of Cincinnati and Professor Alycia Stigall from Ohio University, both of whom contributed their expertise to the chapter covering the Devonian mass extinction. He traveled extensively to see the extinction event boundaries along with many noted geologists and paleontologists.
Brannen also researched the sometimes controversial hypotheses surrounding each extinction. A good example is the end Cretaceous extinction. Ask any school child and you will be told that a giant asteroid hit the earth and killed the dinosaurs. But not so fast. A few researchers maintain that the asteroid alone could not have done everything attributed to it. These geologists maintain that the enormous flood basalts in India (the Deccan Traps) could easily have caused this extinction much like the Siberian Traps contributed to the end Permian mass extinction. At least one geologist is entertaining the idea that the asteroid may have triggered the Deccan Traps basaltic flows making one bad day in the Cretaceous even worse. This illustrates an important point shown throughout The Ends of the World. None of the big five mass extinctions had one single cause for the event. Despite this revelation, Brannen seems to emphasize that CO2 and global warming have had some effect in each extinction. He has chosen to editorialize current climate concerns within each chapter despite having a summary chapter for that purpose near the end of the book.
Following the chapters on the big five, Brannen inserts a chapter entitled, The End Pleistocene Mass Extinction. While not one of the big five which The Ends of the World is ostensibly about, it does fit with his underlying theme of human caused disasters. The end Pleistocene saw the extinction of much of the earth’s megafauna with the exception of Africa. The most popular explanation for these extinctions is over-hunting by humans. This explanation doesn’t fit with Africa but this exception is quickly discounted. The reason? African megafauna lived alongside humans throughout human evolution and learned through that long association that humans were a danger to them. Without this long association, the megafauna of North and South America, Europe and Asia were slower to learn the human threat and they paid the ultimate price. This is a very convenient explanation but like all of the other mass extinctions, this one too probably had multiple causes.
The Ends of the World has debunked a popular cultural myth that you will probably not see presented elsewhere. British geologist Anthony Hallum is quoted as saying that evidence is clear to “dispel once and for all the romantic idea of the superior ecological wisdom of non-western and precolonial societies. The notion that the noble savage living in harmony with Nature should be dispatched to the realm of mythology where it belongs. Human beings have never lived in harmony with nature” (page 233). This statement was in regard to the loss of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene.
Are we currently in a sixth major mass extinction comparable to the big five? That’s what you see in the media. A 2011 paper by University of California Berkeley Professor Anthony Barnosky ,et. al., posed the idea and the popular press hasn’t let go of it. Brannen states that Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin thinks this is “junk science” (page 245). He further quotes Erwin thus, “Many of those making facile comparisons between the current situation and past mass extinctions don’t have a clue about the difference in the nature of the data, much less how truly awful the mass extinctions recorded in the marine fossil record actually were.” He doesn’t discount human caused issues however, “But I do think that as scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons.”
The Near Future is the next to last chapter that covers the projections for global warming if we do nothing to slow it down. The chapter is thorough like all of the others as Brannen interviews climate experts and geologists alike. An interesting fact to note is that all but a very few climate scientists think the much talked about Paris Climate Accords will have any significant effect. They don’t believe that we can achieve the agreed upon 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise limit by the end of this century (page 258). Brannen quotes University of Chicago Professor David Jablonski saying that it is not just warming that will do us in - it is warming plus pollution plus overexploitation (page 263). He calls it a perfect storm not unlike the multiple causes evident for the big five extinctions.
The final chapter is a projection 800 million years into the future. Brannen laments the future of humanity based upon today’s headlines. The earth may go on but will we?
The title of Brannen’s book, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, while accurate for much of the content, masks the true intent of the book. The presentation of the science behind the big five mass extinctions is clearly a means to introduce the reader to current ongoing dialog about modern climate change.
Readability - Suitable for a well read undergraduate familiar with paleontology and geology (but, see notes below).
On the Upside - Well researched and thorough coverage of the top five mass extinctions. The Ends of the World includes the most up to date research from the scientists directly involved in studying these mass extinctions. Brannen includes all sides of the issues where opinions differ. It is not overly technical.
On the Downside - It was difficult for me to determine the intended audience for this book. I had presumed it was intended for younger readers or those not educated in geology and climate change. I felt this way because the unstated subtitle of The Ends of the World should have been: and how this research relates to climate change and the future of the earth. Showing how the science behind ancient mass extinctions relates to the present world situation would seem a likely way to convince doubters. After finishing the book I believe he was targeting a more educated readership.
Arcane word choice at times proves to obscure rather than clarify, e.g., “deafening stridulations,” “xeric wastes.” Brannen also uses obscure literary references in some explanations in order to clarify some point that will no doubt leave readers, other than the very well read, quite clueless. And profanity? Why? I logged at least four instances of inappropriate swear words in The Ends of the World. Two of these involved direct quotes by people being interviewed while the others were Brannen’s. In my opinion, the use of this language degrades the quality of the overall work.
I have other issues with how Brannen deals with references. He doesn’t. The Ends of the World uses footnotes with mostly helpful additional explanations at the bottom of the page. What is missing are footnotes or keys to references that are listed by chapter in the Bibliography of the book. I found floating quotations not attributed to anyone, e.g., Brannen describes the Cincinnati area as, “the most fossil rich regions in North America if not the entire world,” in quotes but without citation (page 25). On the same page, Brannen quotes the program speaker on the evening he attended the Dry Dredgers meeting but doesn’t name him (it was John Catalani). He later cites Professor David L. Meyer (page 37) with a written quote but he does not cite Sea Without Fish from which the quote was taken.
I found Brannen’s style to be somewhat overly descriptive with simile after simile perhaps being used to make the text more interesting or poetic - or was it to compensate for the lack of illustrations? A few line drawings would have significantly helped readers unfamiliar with paleontology and geology. I also take exception to Brannen’s use of the term “boozy” in describing certain people in The Ends of the World. The first was a reference to University of Cincinnati undergraduate students on their way to an on-campus football game (page 23) and the second was a reference to professional geologists in after-conference social meetings (page 38). The term “boozy” implies habitual drunkenness. Even if Brannen interpreted what he saw that way, this observation has no place in a book of this type. He has unnecessarily projected negative images on University of Cincinnati students on the one hand and professional geologists on the other.
Overall Rating - With my downside comments taken into account, I still feel this is a good book because of the thorough coverage of the causes for these major mass extinctions and the message being conveyed. My downside comments, although numerous, do not detract from the science that is presented as they are primarily related to how the book is written. For the general reader The Ends of the World is a good reference point to the big five mass extinctions.