A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes
The Sixth Extinction – Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.
This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino.
Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Book Review by Dennis Littrell
The planet will recover in some measure; we may not
Yes, human-caused extinction is upon us in full force. As science journalist extraordinaire Elizabeth Kolbert tells it, we humans have been killing whatever we could whenever we could since the beginning of our tenure here on earth. First the mastodons, the giant sloths, the great flightless birds, the woolly rhino, then the whales, the gorillas, the tigers, the buffalo, etc. The first cause was ignorance. Primitive humans just didn’t know that they were destroying the source of their subsistence until they had to move on. Today we know the truth.
And that truth is there is nowhere to move on to. This book is a detailed and fascinating delineation of just what we are doing to the planet and how. From the fishes in the sea to the polar bears on the ice: all fall down. Why? Willful ignorance, stupidity, and the devil take tomorrow.
(But it might be said, so what if we kill off all sorts of creatures great and small? We don’t need them. We have our pigs and cows and chickens. We grow corn and soy. Yes, the little foxes are cute and the lions magnificent. But we have zoos and preserves. After you’ve seen a few elephants you don’t need to see vast herds of them.)
This is the view of many people in high places in government and at the helms of giant corporations whose main concern is staying in power and improving the bottom line. But here’s the rub: with the extraordinary rate of the current extinction what we might be left with is nearly sterile oceans, stunted scrub forests, destroyed ecologies and starving humans at one another’s throats. Combine that with global warming and desperate leaders flinging nuclear bombs around, and yes, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
Okay, rant over with. Let me say a few things about this splendid book that is so readable and so full of information, humor and the kind of passion that lights up the pages. Kolbert combines research, interviews and fieldwork into a very readable, vivid and informative narrative that is so good that…well, she won the Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2015.
Some notes and quotes:
“The reason this book is being written by a hairy biped, rather than a scaly one, has more to do with dinosaurian misfortune than with any particular mammalian virtue.” (p. 91)
“Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly.” (p. 162)
Kolbert notes that during the Pleistocene (2.5 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago) “…temperatures were significantly lower than they are now…,” mainly because the glacial periods tended to be longer than the interglacial periods. What this means is that most life forms are probably not going to be able to deal with the heat “…since temperatures never got much warmer than they are right now.” In other words, we are experiencing an accelerated catastrophe. (p.171)
Kolbert describes the red-legged honeycreeper as “the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.” (p. 178) So naturally I had to Google it. It is indeed beautiful. The reader might want to take a look. It’s very blue with some neat black trim and those incongruous red legs!
Kolbert observes that we are creating a New Pangaea because our global transport systems are sending plants and animals all around the globe. Instead of the continents moving closer together the plants and animals are moving closer together as on a single continent. (p. 208)
A joke: after the journal “Nature” published proof of the existence of the Denisovan hominids because of a DNA-rich finger found in southern Siberia, there came a newspaper headline: “Giving Accepted Prehistoric History the Finger.” (p. 253)
As to the “controversy” over what killed off the megafauna in e.g., North and South America, in Siberia, in Australia, Kolbert minces no words and comes down strong on the likely suspect—us. And as for the Neanderthal, ditto. See chapters XI and XII.
She writes: “Before humans finally did in the Neanderthals, they had sex with them.” She notes that “most people today are slightly—up to four percent—Neanderthal.” (p. 238) Personally, according to “23 and Me,” I am 3.8% Neanderthal.
–Dennis Littrell, author of “Understanding Evolution and Ourselves”
Book Review by Johnna Wheeler
Not what I expected
It labored through the first 100 pages talking about how people started finding fossils and tried to figure out what they were based on their knowledge at the time, which wasn’t much. Various theories emerged including Darwinism. It mentions previous extinction events. I expected the book to be about our current situation; the disappearance of bees, birds and butterflies.
The danger of exposures like electromagnetic frequency radiation from wifi, cell towers, high voltage power lines and 5G. The harm done by glyphosate, manmade food, and all the other things that are creating disease and death. I skipped to the last few pages (265-269) which briefly finally mentioned how “We’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings,” but it doesn’t get into much detail. Reading this book was a waste of my time. I don’t plan to finish it.
*Starred Review* It didn’t take long for Homo sapiens to begin “reassembling the biosphere,” observes Kolbert, a Heinz Award–winning New Yorker staff writer and author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006). By burning fossil fuels, we are rapidly changing the atmosphere, the oceans, and the climate, forcing potentially millions of species into extinction. Five watershed events in the deep past decimated life on earth, hence the designation “Sixth Extinction” for today’s human-propelled crisis. To lay the groundwork for understanding this massive die-off, Kolbert crisply tells the stories of such earlier losses as the American mastodon and the great auk and provides an orienting overview of evolutionary and ecological science.
She then chronicles her adventures in the field with biologists, botanists, and geologists investigating the threats against amphibians, bats, coral, and rhinos. Intrepid and astute, Kolbert combines vivid, informed, and awestruck descriptions of natural wonders, from rain forests to the Great Barrier Reef, and wryly amusing tales about such dicey situations as nearly grabbing onto a tree branch harboring a fist-sized tarantula, swimming among poisonous jellyfish, and venturing into a bat cave; each dispatch is laced with running explanations of urgent scientific inquiries and disquieting findings. Rendered with rare, resolute, and resounding clarity, Kolbert’s compelling and enlightening report forthrightly addresses the most significant topic of our lives. –Donna Seaman
[The Sixth Extinction] is a wonderful book, and it makes very clear that big, abrupt changes can happen; they’re not outside the realm of possibility. They have happened before, they can happen again. ―President Barack Obama
“Fascinating.” ―USA Today
“[An] excellent new book…The Sixth Extinction is the kind of book that helps us recognize the actual planet we live upon.” ―New York Review of Books
“Surprisingly breezy, entirely engrossing, and frequently entertaining… Kolbert is a masterful, thought-provoking reporter.” ―The Boston Globe
“Thorough and fascinating . . . Kolbert is an economical and deft explainer of the technical, and about as intrepid a reporter as they come . . . Her reporting is meticulous.” ―Harper’s
“Riveting… It is not possible to overstate the importance of Kolbert’s book. Her prose is lucid, accessible and even entertaining as she reveals the dark theater playing out on our globe.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“A fascinating and frightening excursion… Kolbert presents powerful cases to bring her point home.” ―The Washington Post
“Your view of the world will be fundamentally changed… Kolbert is an astute observer, excellent explainer and superb synthesizer, and even manages to find humor in her subject matter.” ―The Seattle Times
“What’s exceptional about Kolbert’s writing is the combination of scientific rigor and wry humor that keeps you turning the pages.” ―National Geographic
“Beautifully written. An excellent book.” ―Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
Originally published: 11 February 2014
Page count: 319