Quickie Book Reviews: ‘Extinction’ and ‘Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder’

2 05 2007

Over the weekend I did manage to finish Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder and I must admit that overall it was an enjoyable read. The book’s author, Lawrence Weschler, manages to draw the reader into the book much in the same way that he was drawn into the curiosity cabinet and the book parallels his experience in the “Museum of Jurassic Technology”. Weschler also takes time to explain how such exhibits came around in the first place, but he does this through explaining his own research in trying to track down the truth about certain exhibits so the book doesn’t drag or become stale during these sections. Indeed, being able to distinguish reality from illusion is a major theme of the book and I have to admit that it’s conclusion (Weschler viewing what is purported to be a horn that grew out of a woman’s head and then moving off not knowing whether to make heads or tails of it) was a bit disappointing. While I later came to appreciate this technique (and Weschler’s endnotes that do describe the horn and its history), at first I was a little bit miffed that I had just been left hanging there. Still, after reading the end notes I realized that throughout the book Weschler clues us in to the truths (or lies) behind some of the displays, and perhaps at the end we need to make a bit of an effort ourselves to check out some stories. When we visit museums or other institutions, all too often we don’t question what we see on display, but oftentimes a little research provides a much richer and complicated story than the cut-and-dried version put on display (hopefully I’ll be able to keep this promise, but I hope to do a post in the near future on the history of the Tyrannosaurus on display at the AMNH). In the end, I certainly would recommend the book and it has been one of the more enjoyable works that I’ve had the chance to read as of late.

I also finished David Raup’s Extinction: Bad genes or bad luck? last night at it was also a wonderful read. Rather than many other books on extinction, Raup stays away from the 50 pages+ discussions of each of the “Big Five” extinctions and focuses on a much more important question; why are there extinctions at all? Taking the reader through various models like the “Field of Bullets” and “Gambler’s Ruin” Raup describes what is likely and what is not likely to drive a group of animals towards extinction, culminating in a discussion of hypotheses for major extinctions (especially if caused by the impact of an asteroid or a comet). What I appreciated most about Raup’s book was the fact that he is honest about what he is proposing, offering up the other side of the issue whenever possible and plainly saying “I don’t know” when there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. I do agree, however, with his ultimate conclusion that bad genes alone do not cause extinctions, but bad luck (i.e. asteroid impacts or other catastrophes me may or may not yet understand) is the larger force behind massive die-offs. He makes a few mistakes here and there (i.e. that the root systems of American Chestnut trees have allowed them to survive despite massive fungal infection, when in fact the fungus kills off the trees before they can proliferate and so now there are nearly no such trees left) but overall I found it to be a refreshingly honest look at extinction and its potential causes.




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