sixth extinction

Review of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.

 

What is the book about?

The Sixth Extinction : An Unnatural History is the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction book, amongst other awards. It is written by Elizabeth Kobert, a renowned journalist and author of numerous books on science, natural history and climate change.

There have been 5 major mass extinctions in the history of the world. Elizabeth Kobert says that we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction and that humanity is the cause for it. The Sixth Extinction explores various themes related to this topic ranging across species (coral reefs to neanderthals) , geography (South America to Asia to Europe), and time along with their impact and causes.

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What does this book cover?

The Sixth Extinction has thirteen chapters. Each chapter is typically centered around the extinction or near extinction of a specie(s).  Elizabeth Kolbert gives us a view of the researchers, scientists and others who are working to prevent the extinction or identify its causes or are responsible for making an important discovery which changes our perspective of the world. The chapters include the history and science behind each of the topics being spoken about.

The chapters cover the following topics

  • The current extinction of amphibians in Central America is used to explain the 5 big extinctions to us.
  • Mastodons are used to talk about Cuvier, his views on Catastrophism and his creation of Paleontology
  • The Great Auk is used to introduce Lyell’s views on gradual change (uniformitarianism) , its influence on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
  • The chapter on Ammonites shows us how catastrophism made a comeback after Luis Alvarez’s use of Iridium to figure out that an asteroid impact caused the KT extinction (66 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs)  and vindication by the discovery of the Chicxulub crater in Mexico.
  • The Graptolite extinction 444 million years back show that there can be other reasons for mass extinctions like glaciation, the introduction of new species or changes in climate and chemistry.
  • The next couple of chapters use coral reefs to show us what happens when the COcontent in the biosphere increases drastically, which leads to acidification of oceans and the subsequent death of marine creatures.
  • We next get to see forests in South America. We learn about the species-area relationship and while tropics have orders of magnitude greater diversity than colder latitudes. We also get to know that creatures in the tropics will be far greater affected by climate change due to their greater specialization.
  • The next chapter looks at current experiments to see how ecological reserves work and the importance of constancy of interactions in biospheres.
  • The consequences of transporting species to new habitats is explored next, using bats as an example
  • Suci, the Sumatran Rhino, is used to show us how top megafauna (elephants, grizzlies etc.), while well adapted for nature, can not survive humans. We get to see how humanity has been responsible for mass extinctions for the last 40000 years.
  • Neanderthals are the subject of the next chapter; they are used to introduce paleogenetics.
  • The last chapter looks at attempts to preserve the DNA of species that are disappearing now and how humanity is on a downward slope towards extinction.

 

 

What did I like?

The Sixth Extinction is a well researched book that focuses on science and not politics. It has a great list of references at the end to substantiate all the facts mentioned in the book which makes it extremely credible.

The book is informative. It covers diverse extinctions and is not afraid to get into the science and history wherever necessary. I loved the structure of the chapters and the way they were put together. There is a logical sequence to the book which leads us to the final conclusions. Humanity cannot stop creating mass extinctions.

This is a dark and grim book. But it is by no means hard to read. Elizabeth Kolbert has taken a controversial and serious topic and made it easy to consume.

 

What did I not like?

I would have liked to see the author tackle natural extinctions in more detail. Also, some creatures like Elephants are quite destructive to their habitats. It would have been good to explore this topic too.

My Recommendation

I strongly recommend this book. If you wanted to know about the impact humanity is having on our biosphere, this is the book for you. You will get to see why this impact is so profound . This book deals only with facts and there is no ‘green’ agenda that I could discern. All of this is written in a down to earth manner.

It is estimated that one-third to one-half of ALL living species on Earth will no longer exist by 2050. Think about it. Imagine not seeing one half of birds, animals, insects, plants, trees etc. when you look out of the window. We cannot stop this extinction since our very existence is creating it. We have been causing creatures to die out since we learnt to come together in groups millennia back. And we will continue to do so until we go extinct. There is no happy ending. We are responsible for the Sixth Extinction.

Humanity is well and truly fucked. And so are the other creatures which have had the misfortune of sharing the Earth with us.

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Also published on Medium.