Millipedes as long as a car, scorpions as big as a dog. A large dog.

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There are connections between the Carboniferous and our modern problem with Carbon. Some of the connections are conceptual, or object lessons, about the drastic nature of large scale climate change. Some are lessons about the carbon cycle at the largest possible scale — first you turn a double digit percentage of all life related matter into coal, then you wait a few hundred million years, then you burn all the coal and see what happens! There are also great mysteries that you all know about because every Western person and a lot of non Western people have, at one time or another, stood in front of a museum exhibit declaring, “The very spot you stand was the site of an ancient sea bla bla bla” and somewhere that exhibit, or near it, is a life size diorama with scorpions and millipedes the size of a dog.

George R. McGhee Jr.’s Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction: The Late Paleozoic Ice Age World is not light reading. It is an academic treatise delving into climate change and geology, and related evolution, of the Carboniferous period. The Carboniferous was about 60 million years long, followed the Devonian and preceded the Permian, and the name refers to the giant amounts of coal that apparently formed during this period. This was a warm period and a period with multiple ice ages. The time span covered in this book, which goes well more recent than just the Carboniferous, is plenty long enough for all the continents to travel great distances, and the basic configuration of the Earth to change. There were periods so warm that multi-cellular land life likely did not exist at all in the tropics. The arctic was covered with a continent and it was very warm and lush, even if dark for half the time.

This is probably the time for a book like this, since over the last decade or so a great deal of field research and laboratory analysis of isotopes and other invisible things has led us to the point where a comprehensive overview of great and deep time, globally, is possible without the use of truthy but overdone generalizations. You get the sense form McGhee’s book of significant variation across space and time that is understood at some level of detail. Paleontology turns time machine at a finer scale than usual. You also get a sense of the bigness of change that can happen in the ecological systems we have here on Earth. It is very big. Outright scary, in fact.

As noted, this is not a light and airy science book written by a skilled science writer. It is a deep dive written by an expert who has the rare capacity to put a vast array of information into perspective. The black and white illustrations are very well chose and executed and in some cases startling. I give this read a strong yes.

George R. McGhee Jr. is Distinguished Professor of Paleobiology at Rutgers University and a fellow of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Klosterneuburg, Austria. He has held research positions at the University of Tubingen, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History. His books include The Late Devonian Mass Extinction: The Frasnian/Famennian Crisis (1996); Theoretical Morphology: The Concept and Its Applications (1999); and When the Invasion of Land Failed: The Legacy of the Devonian Extinctions (2013), from Columbia University Press.


1. Harbingers of the Late Paleozoic Ice Age
2. The Big Chill
3. The Late Carboniferous Ice World
4. Giants in the Earth . . .
5. The End of the Late Paleozoic Ice Age
6. The End of the Paleozoic World
7. The Legacy of the Late Paleozoic Ice Age

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3 thoughts on “Millipedes as long as a car, scorpions as big as a dog. A large dog.

  1. Looks right up my street. Thanks for the tip 🙂

    Since we’re on mass extinctions in deep time, I’ve just bought Peter Brennen’s The Ends of the World as a Christmas present for someone interested in all this. I haven’t read it through, only dipped in, but it looks good enough for a recommend – not least because there isn’t another popular science, up-to-date treatment of the causes of mass extinctions that I know of. The next nearest thing is probably Tony Hallam’s Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities, which is very good, but quite dense, not perhaps ideal for a first read into the subject.

  2. Right up my street too Greg, your suggestions too BBD, but

    “Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction: The Late Paleozoic Ice Age World” at £40 is expensive for a paperback. Then so was ‘Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science’ by Tom Garrison when I bought a copy, International Student Edition in UK, many moons ago and well worth cost packed full of essentials. I can recommend this book too – essential reading for some of the deniers we see around here.

    I’ll offer my rework of a geo-time spiral I found in another excellent book, cited in top right of the image, to which I added a tree diagram.

    It is about eight years since I last updated that image so would substitute this url in place of one given:

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