323 pages, no illustrations
While examining the history of our planet and actively exploring our present environment, science journalist Michael Tennesen describes what life on earth could look like after the next mass extinction.
A growing number of scientists agree we are headed toward a mass extinction, perhaps in as little as 300 years. Already there have been five mass extinctions in the last 600 million years, including the Cretaceous Extinction, during which an asteroid knocked out the dinosaurs. Though these events were initially destructive, they were also prime movers of evolutionary change in nature. And we can see some of the warning signs of another extinction event coming, as our oceans lose both fish and oxygen. In The Next Species, Michael Tennesen questions what life might be like after it happens.
Tennesen discusses the future of nature and whether humans will make it through the bottleneck of extinction. Without man, could the seas regenerate to what they were before fishing vessels? Could life suddenly get very big as it did before the arrival of humans? And what if man survives the coming catastrophes, but in reduced populations? Would those groups be isolated enough to become distinct species? Could the conquest of Mars lead to another form of human? Could we upload our minds into a computer and live in a virtual reality? Or could genetic engineering create a more intelligent and long-lived creature that might shun the rest of us? And how would we recognize the next humans? Are they with us now?
Tennesen delves into the history of the planet and travels to rainforests, canyons, craters, and caves all over the world to explore the potential winners and losers of the next era of evolution. His predictions, based on reports and interviews with top scientists, have vital implications for life on earth today.
"In the past, five mass extinctions have destroyed at least 75 percent of all living species. It is no secret that we are now in the midst of another. Joining the growing shelf of books warning of the miseries that lie ahead, science journalist Tennesen (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Global Warming, 2005) chronicles his interviews with scientists from around the world, delivering an engrossing history of life, the dismal changes wrought by man and a forecast of life after the sixth mass extinction. Competition drives evolution. Mostly, this process involves the procurement of food, the author's major concern. It has made humans the dominant species, but our disastrous mishandling of the process threatens our future. Agriculture occupies 43 percent of the Earth's land. It is the best 43 percent, so there is little room for expansion, and scientific advances are losing the battle with ongoing soil deterioration. Livestock eat five times more grain than we do, and they take up 30 percent of the land, a percentage that is growing. Fish are the last wild animals that we hunt in large numbers, but we may be the last generation to do so because stocks are crashing. The spread of domestic animals combined with the elimination of forests and wild species guarantee more diseases similar to AIDS and SARS. Having delivered an alarming overview of our increasingly toxic environment, Tennesen gives short shrift to the traditional how-to-fix-it conclusion because his experts seem mostly discouraged. In one chapter, the author discusses migrating to other planets. "No single cause will take humans out," he writes. "But multiple causes have a chance." In a mostly engaging book, Tennesen concludes that evolution will again drive survivors into a burst of creativity that will repopulate the planet, but it's uncertain if this will include Homo sapiens.
– Kirkus Reviews (01/01/2015)
"With a different title, this book could have been a successful, though uninspired, account of the mass species extinction associated with the Anthropocene epoch. Science journalist Tennesen (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Global Warming) surveys the previous five mass extinctions that have shaped life on earth and examines some of the ways in which humans are destroying habitats and biodiversity today. But despite his title, he never explores what the world might look like if humans were to vanish, or which species might expand to fill some of the ecological roles humans have dominated. Instead, Tennesen briefly delves into a very speculative future of humanity itself, with one superficial chapter focusing on the possibility of humans moving into space and colonizing Mars, and another that lightly touches on the possibility of merging artificial intelligence with humans by uploading minds to machines. Both read as afterthoughts to his central emphasis on how anthropogenic changes have impact on the biosphere. Tennesen is at his best when addressing the urgent environmental problems of today, particularly in his engaging discussion of water usage in New York City and Las Vegas. Overall, though, the book fails to come together satisfactorily."
– Publishers Weekly (26/01/2015)
"When an asteroid snuffed out three-fourths of the earth's species of plants and animals 65 million years ago, no human eyes observed the catastrophe. Tennesen fears, however, that humans will witness the next great extinction event – precisely because we will have caused it. To explain the dynamics of mass extinction, Tennesen examines the fossil record, focusing on the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago, a grim phenomenon characterized by several disturbingly familiar features: greenhouse gases, rising global temperatures, and acidification of the oceans. Yet as he both scrutinizes the geological record of past disasters and contemplates the ominous possibility of another, the author stresses that evolutionary adaptability ensures life's survival. To be sure, Tennesen urges readers to support measures that might avert mass extinctions by curbing human abuses of the environment. But even if humans continue their environmental heedlessness, he foresees a future in which nature again demonstrates its astonishing power to turn oblivion into new creation. The next new creation simply might not include humans. But then again, readers also contemplate possibilities for future superhumans – perhaps living on Mars or in software uploaded into computers. Simultaneously sobering and exhilarating, this wide-ranging survey of disasters highlights both life's fragility and its metamorphosing persistence."
– Booklist (01/02/2015), starred review
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Michael Tennesen is a science writer who has written more than 300 stories in such journals as Discover, Scientific American, New Scientist, National Wildlife, Audubon, Science, Smithsonian, and others. He was a Media Fellow at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Duke University, and a Writer in Residence at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He lives in the California desert near Joshua Tree National Park with Maggie, his wife; China, his dog; and Swift, his tortoise.