Book Review: "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert

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Review by Carolyn Johnsen

Title: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.

"The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth KolbertElizabeth Kolbert has written an important and readable book, The Sixth Extinction. The book explores the concept of the “Anthropocene” Age—the age of the coming “sixth extinction,” which, she writes convincingly, will likely be caused by humans. Acknowledging the uniqueness of Homo sapiens, Kolbert identifies human curiosity and the will to explore as qualities that will ultimately drive many species to extinction. Human creativity, of course, has led to climate change, one of the current drivers of extinction.

In this book—her fourth—Kolbert traces the origin of the concept of extinction by Georges Cuvier, a French scientist. This section of the book is a version of the article that Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer, previously published in that magazine.

Kolbert is an accomplished writer who knows that to adequately convey details about science—with which many readers will be unfamiliar—a writer must use familiar comparisons. She writes, for example, “The zooxanthellae produce carbohydrates, via photosynthesis, and the polyps harvest these carbohydrates, much as farmers harvest corn.” Kolbert also advances her story with almost every sentence, which she loads with detail, such as numbers.

In addition to being a gifted science writer, Kolbert also knows her science, which she has demonstrated through her work for the New Yorker and in her previous books, including Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Kolbert possesses the work ethic and other qualities of a scientist—such as curiosity and the zeal for exploration—both qualities of a good journalist as well. To write The Sixth Extinction, she read many science-journal articles, attested to by the extensive acknowledgments, notes, and selected bibliography that appear at the end of the book. Among her many reporting trips for this book, she trudged through the Amazonian rain forest and spelunked in bat caves in the US—always in the company of scientists on a research mission.

In chilling detail gleaned from her reading, travels, and many interviews, Kolbert provides evidence to support her assertion that “one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” She draws such information from the work of scientists all over the world—in Panama, Australia, France, and the United States—to identify just a few examples.

The Sixth Extinction includes diagrams and photographs that admirably support the text, such as a diagram of the first five extinctions (End-Ordovician, Late Devonian, End-Permian, Late Triassic, and End-Cretaceous), a diagram showing the current decline of biodiversity, and photographs of disappearing frogs and bats. Kolbert supports such illustrations with visits to many parts of Earth—for example, to the island off Iceland where the great auk made what Kolbert calls its “last stand.” She relates the history of the great auk’s 1844 extinction—gradual to be sure, but mostly caused by humans who lusted after the bird’s feathers and meat.

She explores the scientific debate over catastrophic extinction—a controversy loved by media, she points out, even though she, herself, is a journalist. Some scientists hypothesized that one catastrophic extinction had been caused by the six-mile-wide meteorite that hit the Yucatan Peninsula sixty-six million years ago. Although the theory took time to be accepted, eventually many scientists thought that the impact and its aftermath killed many of Earth’s species, including the dinosaurs.

Typically, Kolbert writes, extinctions occur more gradually over long periods of geographic time; she cites noted scientists, such as Charles Darwin and
E. O. Wilson, to support this concept of gradual extinction. But to identify ongoing extinctions of species, she also draws from the work of lesser-known scientists who work all over the planet. And she often returns to the topic of human uniqueness to make her point. Near the end of the chapter on Neanderthals, she writes: “With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it.” At the end of the chapter titled “The Rhino Gets an Ultrasound,” she writes, “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.”

Elizabeth Kolbert explores and documents the notion that humans are responsible for the latest round of extinctions, but she doesn’t preach—another fine quality of her splendid book. And yet, the accumulation of evidence that she provides is so great that a reader must, it seems to this reviewer, be convinced of the existence of the Anthropocene Age.

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