The best books on extinction

11 authors have picked their favorite books about extinction and why they recommend each book.

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Extinct Birds

By Julian Hume,

Book cover of Extinct Birds

This book is an encyclopedia of recently extinct birds, and anyone who is interested in this subject should get it. My own book on this matter (also titled Extinct Birds) is a romantic ramble through the subject – accurate and informative in its own way, but serving a rather different purpose to the volume under consideration here.

Julian Hume’s book contains everything that you might wish to know about any recently extinct avian species; indeed it contains virtually everything significant that is actually known! Sometimes the accounts are lengthy, sometimes they are more meagre but in this latter case, it is simply because so little is known about the bird in question.


Who am I?

I am a painter who specializes mostly in sleazy sports (boxing, snooker, etc. – nothing really healthy!) who happens to have written and designed 18 books. Obviously, producing books has become something of a habit. These books are about curiosities of natural history and also about art – but they have little to do with my paintings. Anyone who is interested in either the books or the paintings can see them on my website. I suppose the book that I’m best known for is Drawn from Paradise, a book that I did with David Attenborough on one of our two mutual obsessions – birds of paradise. Apart from books and paintings, my life is fairly humdrum; in fact, there isn’t a lot of time for much else, although I’ve been married more than once and have children. I’ve now reached an age when I should start slowing down but I’ve no intention of stopping what I do until either bad health or death finish me off!


I wrote...

The Great Auk

By Errol Fuller,

Book cover of The Great Auk

What is my book about?

It is difficult for me to pick a favourite from the various books I’ve published, but since I’m obliged to make a choice, it has to be The Great Auk. This is a volume about a bird that has been extinct since 1844 and, surprisingly perhaps for a book about a single species, it runs to almost 450 large pages. It even surprises me that I found so much to write about. When I started it, I expected it to run to, perhaps, a hundred pages or so, but the obsession to produce something entirely complete just went on and on and on.

I tried to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for information and pictures. In fact, the size became a problem when it came to finding a publisher. In addition to all the written material, I had collected more than 200 coloured pictures of what is essentially a black and white bird. No publisher is likely to tolerate such self-indulgence, and all wanted to cut it to more reasonable proportions. This was something I couldn’t even begin to consider – so I published it myself. Then, when it was done an American publisher (Abrams) decided to take it on after all and they produced a US edition. Naturally, I was pleased about this but unfortunately, they changed the dustwrapper and it is nowhere near as beautiful as the dust jacket on my privately published UK edition.

The Sixth Extinction

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Any book by this writer makes a good read but this one rise above the others—and that is no small feat. This is an odd way to put it but the book brings to life the five catastrophic events that decimated so many species over the course of geological time. The idea of a sixth catastrophic event causing another mass extinction can be seen in human time because human activity is driving the catastrophe. Though it is true that the earth has always had climate change with global warming and cooling, this book shows how dangerous that plain fact can be without context. 


Who am I?

When I left Wisconsin and arrived for a position at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I was struck by the state’s nearly manic fear of low prices for the oil flowing from Prudhoe Bay through the Alaska (or North Slope) oil pipeline. Years later I returned to Wisconsin and quickly learned that there was relatively little interest in a pipeline that ran down the entire state in the manner of the Alaska pipeline. Only this pipeline carried synthetic crude made from natural asphalt hacked or melted out of the ground in Alberta, Canada. My interest in the environmental and political aspects of that pipeline set me on the path to a book about asphalt.


I wrote...

Asphalt: A History

By Kenneth O'Reilly,

Book cover of Asphalt: A History

What is my book about?

The asphalt on approximately 94 percent of paved roads in the United States has a chemical cousin in the oil sands (or tar sands) of Alberta, Canada. Oil companies are converting that natural asphalt (called bitumen in Canada) into synthetic crude oil ("syncrude") or diluting it with chemicals ("dilbit") so it can ship south via pipeline through Wisconsin and into storage tanks in Illinois. Refineries are the end destination. Gasoline is the end product. 

Global warming imagery has the earth bleeding co2 and consumed by God knows what. Wildfire and rising sea? War and famine? Pandemic now and pandemic from now on? Asphalt helped shape our environment in so many ways. Now, it might help destroy our environment in one simple way.

Earth's Wild Music

By Kathleen Dean Moore,

Book cover of Earth's Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World

Earth's Wild Music was published just last year. Kathleen Dean Moore is a naturalist and philosopher, with a keen ear and searching eye. I love the form of this book (a gathering of short essays, or what the poet Ross Gay called “essayettes”) ranging widely across geography and time. It reaches back to my book on slowing down, and forward into my current project, which has to do with the art of listening. The writer Elizabeth Kolbert calls it “a love song to a vanishing world.”


Who am I?

I am a writer and educator, originally from the British Isles. Perhaps because of this, I am more than usually aware of the distraction and speed of contemporary American life. As a long-time meditator, and the author of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, I am encouraged and inspired by any book that draws attention to our “hurry sickness” and offers practices or suggestions to help us to slow down.


I wrote...

World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down

By Christian McEwen,

Book cover of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down

What is my book about?

A reviewer wrote, "this is a lovely book in which McEwen gathers together 'poetry and art and literary history, Buddhism and contemplative practice, along with a smattering of sociology and statistics' as well as insights from a variety of practicing artists.… Individual sections and anecdotes are headed in a way that makes them easy to find and intriguing—I wanted to know why 'Silence is Goldish-blue,' and what is 'The trouble with poetry.'" 

"One of the key elements of what librarians call 'readers' advisory' is that you do not push books on people… I find this difficult. Some books just compel me to get everyone I possibly can to read them. This is one of those books."

The History of Bees

By Maja Lunde,

Book cover of The History of Bees

I’m personally fascinated by bees (there are a few of them that turn up in my own book), so a speculative novel where they play a starring role was always going to be a must-read for me. Lunde’s novel spans 150 years and reminds us that for all our ingenuity and invention, humans are nowhere near as smart as the natural world, and we mess about with it at our peril. For bee aficionados, there’s a great deal of knowledge in these pages. There’s also thoughtful, reasoned speculation about what the 21st Century will mean for China’s place in the world, and a seamless interweaving of narratives. It’s an often sad novel that reminds us that we’re not as powerful as we think we are. 


Who am I?

I was a political journalist in London for the BBC and HuffPost for many years, so thinking about our current politics, and where we are headed kind of fixates me! From the day I read 1984 as a twelve-year-old, I’ve been obsessed with how novels set in the near future or an alternate past can be intensely political, and instructive. I enjoy sci-fi, but it’s the extrapolation of our world into a similar yet different one that can tell us so much about our own society. 


I wrote...

Weeks in Naviras

By Chris Wimpress,

Book cover of Weeks in Naviras

What is my book about?

Weeks in Naviras is a speculative fiction novel set in the near future, where the worlds of British and American politics converge in a Portuguese fishing village. The narrow streets of Naviras are the backdrop to the secret life of Ellie, the wife of the British prime minister. Now she’s back to remember her time there, recalling the secrets which sprang up at Casa Amanha, the home of a weather forecaster where her love for two men begins and ends.

Ellie has returned to Naviras just as a conspiracy to destabilise the Middle East is erupting. The village is the first and last place she ought to be, but Naviras has saved its biggest and deadliest secret for last.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

By Annalee Newitz,

Book cover of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

When you study the long arc of history you begin to suspect that apocalypses aren't just inevitable, they're common. And so is survival, which is a really heartening thought. Human beings are crazily adaptable, and our ability to come together in communities (ideally, when we're at our best, which granted isn't always and is hard to see sometimes) will aid our survival. Annalee Newitz tells us how this is has happened before, and how it can happen again.


Who am I?

I have an idea. A conviction, let's call it, that humanity is not doomed. The Mad Max scenario where civilization collapses, thrusting us into an anarchic hellscape in which the living envy the dead, is totally unrealistic and not likely to happen. So let's imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario in which people come together to help each other, to save what knowledge they can, to build something new and useful. To learn the lessons from the destruction that came before. This is what I tried to imagine in my novel Bannerless, and this is why this topic interests me so much.


I wrote...

Bannerless

By Carrie Vaughn,

Book cover of Bannerless

What is my book about?

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroy much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. 

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him? In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

The Ends of the World

By Peter Brannen,

Book cover of The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

Brannen examines the major mass extinctions in earth’s past and concurrent times of eruptions of massive floods of lava. He introduces us to the front-line researchers who are using the forensic tools of modern geology to uncover the connection between these titanic eruptions and the release of volcanic gases, severe greenhouse warming, ocean stagnation and eventual mass extinctions of life. This leads to the possibility that catastrophes can come from inside as well as outside the earth.


Who am I?

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History when I was seven years old hooked me on dinosaurs and geology in general. I have maintained that passion to uncover the history of the earth with fieldwork on all seven continents, cutting-edge research, and teaching undergraduates to appreciate the implications of our tenancy on the planet, and our place within the solar system, the galaxy, and the wider universe.


I wrote...

Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

By Michael R. Rampino,

Book cover of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Cataclysms offers a cosmic context for the earth’s geologic evolution, in which periodic disasters from above in the form of comet and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava have led to catastrophic mass extinctions of life. This “new geology” sees the earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy as the key to understanding our planet’s geology and the history of life.

The book concludes with a controversial consideration of exotic dark matter in the galaxy as a potential triggering mechanism, exploring its role in heating the earth’s core and spurring periodic bursts of geologic activity.

The Worst of Times

By Paul B. Wignall,

Book cover of The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions

Can continental drift lead to mass extinctions of life? In this book, Wignall expounds his provoking hypothesis that gigantic volcanic eruptions, triggered by the arrangement of the world’s landmasses in a single super-continent, led to eighty million years of episodic environmental crises that devastated life again and again. He describes the latest scientific evidence for this volcano-extinction connection and takes us with him on his own exciting field experiences studying these volcanic events in remote corners of the world.


Who am I?

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History when I was seven years old hooked me on dinosaurs and geology in general. I have maintained that passion to uncover the history of the earth with fieldwork on all seven continents, cutting-edge research, and teaching undergraduates to appreciate the implications of our tenancy on the planet, and our place within the solar system, the galaxy, and the wider universe.


I wrote...

Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

By Michael R. Rampino,

Book cover of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Cataclysms offers a cosmic context for the earth’s geologic evolution, in which periodic disasters from above in the form of comet and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava have led to catastrophic mass extinctions of life. This “new geology” sees the earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy as the key to understanding our planet’s geology and the history of life.

The book concludes with a controversial consideration of exotic dark matter in the galaxy as a potential triggering mechanism, exploring its role in heating the earth’s core and spurring periodic bursts of geologic activity.

Extinctions

By Michael Hannah,

Book cover of Extinctions: Living and Dying in the Margin of Error

The history of life’s diversity, as revealed in the fossil record has been tumultuous. Periods of explosive evolution alternated with times of major species loss. Hannah skillfully utilizes the geologic record to provide a historical context for our current global ecological emergency and the rapid demise of many key species. He makes a strong case that those who ignore the clear messages of geologic history are doomed to experience the worsening “Sixth Extinction” during the newly defined Anthropocene epoch.

Who am I?

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History when I was seven years old hooked me on dinosaurs and geology in general. I have maintained that passion to uncover the history of the earth with fieldwork on all seven continents, cutting-edge research, and teaching undergraduates to appreciate the implications of our tenancy on the planet, and our place within the solar system, the galaxy, and the wider universe.


I wrote...

Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

By Michael R. Rampino,

Book cover of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Cataclysms offers a cosmic context for the earth’s geologic evolution, in which periodic disasters from above in the form of comet and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava have led to catastrophic mass extinctions of life. This “new geology” sees the earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy as the key to understanding our planet’s geology and the history of life.

The book concludes with a controversial consideration of exotic dark matter in the galaxy as a potential triggering mechanism, exploring its role in heating the earth’s core and spurring periodic bursts of geologic activity.

How to Clone a Mammoth

By Beth Shapiro,

Book cover of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

Shapiro’s title is a bait-and-switch. She immediately makes clear in big block letters: "WE CAN’T CLONE A MAMMOTH!" It’s impossible. So what is she doing? Well, we can genetically rejigger Asian elephants to resemble woolly mammoths, and that could be useful. Erzats mammoths might help restore the Siberian tundra, and bioengineered, cold-adapted elephants could expand their range north, which would help them survive climate change. Shapiro has little patience for romantic visions of restoring extinct species, but she makes a compelling—and reassuring—case for how we can use bioengineering to save endangered species while they still exist.


Who am I?

As an author of YA science books (as well as being an editor), my goal is to inspire teens to think deeply about our world, but especially about our relationships with animals. To be honest, I knew bubkis about bioengineering until I was writing my previous book, Last of the Giants, about the extinction crisis. My head exploded as I learned how close we are to “de-extincting” lost species. The power that genetic engineering gives us to alter animals is unnerving, and it’s critical that we understand and discuss it. Bioengineering will change our future, and teens today will be the ones deciding how.    


I wrote...

Glowing Bunnies!? Why We're Making Hybrids, Chimeras, and Clones

By Jeff Campbell,

Book cover of Glowing Bunnies!? Why We're Making Hybrids, Chimeras, and Clones

What is my book about?

With modern bioengineering, science fiction’s “what if?” has become the scientist’s “why not?” Today, we have the tools to remake animals in almost any way we want, and genetic engineering is being used to help solve a range of urgent problems related to climate change, species extinctions, conservation, disease, human health, and the food industry. But as science fiction likes to warn us, altering animals isn’t without dangers, and it raises profound ethical questions. Glowing Bunnies!? explores how genetic engineering is currently reshaping animals and our world and asks that all-important question: Given what we can do, what should we do?

Rebirding

By Benedict MacDonald,

Book cover of Rebirding: Winner of the Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation: Restoring Britain's Wildlife

This is a wonderfully imaginative book. It examines how Britain, a nation of nature lovers with over 1 million members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, has become one of the most damaged and denuded countries on the planet. Although depressing in parts when looking at the depths of our global biodiversity crisis, this book explains how we can turn this around, heal our land, bring back wildlife, and ensure vibrant rural communities. 


Who am I?

I have loved insects and other wildlife for all of my life. I am now a professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, UK, specializing in bee ecology. I have published more than 400 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects, plus seven books, including the Sunday Times bestsellers A Sting in the Tale (2013), The Garden Jungle (2019), and Silent Earth (2021). They’ve been translated into 20 languages and sold over half a million copies. I also founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity that has grown to 12,000 members. 


I wrote...

The Garden Jungle

By Dave Goulson,

Book cover of The Garden Jungle

What is my book about?

The Garden Jungle is a celebration of the wildlife that lives right under our noses, in our gardens and parks, between the gaps in the pavement, and in the soil beneath our feet. Dave Goulson gives us an insight into the fascinating and sometimes weird lives of these creatures, taking us burrowing into the compost heap, digging under the lawn, and diving into the garden pond. He explains how our lives and ultimately the fate of humankind are inextricably intertwined with that of earwigs, bees, lacewings, and hoverflies, unappreciated heroes of the natural world, and how we can all help to encourage biodiversity in our back yard.

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