Triumph of the Cockroach

Steve Jones

  • Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? by David Raup
    Norton, 192 pp, £13.95, January 1992, ISBN 0 393 03008 3

Time and chance, as the Good Book says, come to us all. We all know that each of us will soon disappear from the Earth. David Raup’s book compounds our pessimism by pointing out that – if humans are anything like other animals – the fate awaiting our species as a whole is also an almost certain annihilation. Very few creatures persist for long in evolutionary time. There are a few hardy survivors, like the cockroach (which has remained unchanged for tens of millions of years), but for most, extinction follows quite soon after origin. This sad fact has been neglected by biologists, who, being – in general – optimists, are far more interested in how new forms of life appear than in how they depart: a philosophy which, as Raup says, is rather like a demographer concentrating on births and forgetting about deaths. Raup is an obituarist. His book, like all good obituaries, tells us more about its subjects after their demise than could safely be revealed when they were alive. He asks a deeply theological question: is it their fault that people (or species) are damned – they have bad genes – or do they perish at random because of simple bad luck?

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