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Under The Microscope

EXTINCTION, by David Raup; Oxford University Press, 1993; 210 pp; $29.95

From the fossil record, we can see that many species, and groups of species, have been highly successful in their time, yet vanished entirely for some unknown reason -- dinosaurs are a spectacular and widely known example of such a group extinction.

Why? Does a species dying out have hidden flaws in its make-up that lead to its demise, does some event happen over which it has no influence, or is it simply the result of chance? Are mass extinctions the result of a single event, or is it only that many extinctions just happen to occur at the same time?

Raup looks at these possibilities, approaching the matter statistically, comparing what has been observed of extinction with random scenarios. Much of the data, he finds, indicates that extinction normally matches well with the outcome of random happenings -- but not always... Extinction is easily readable, and although there are a lot of statistics, they're always straightforward. Those with a background in the subject may well find it a bit light, but it's an interesting introduction to an intriguing topic for a general audience.

Phil Anderson, NZSM