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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  63,460 ratings  ·  6,460 reviews
Over the last half-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 p
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published February 11th 2014 by Henry Holt and Co. (Georg von Holtzbrinck)
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Ksenia A generation before Darwin's life time, the idea of evolution (generally "change over time") was already accepted among scientists. Darwin (and, at th…moreA generation before Darwin's life time, the idea of evolution (generally "change over time") was already accepted among scientists. Darwin (and, at the exact same time Alfred Russell Wallace) proposed a mechanism of how that change occurs -- Natural selection. Natural selection is one of several mechanisms of evolution. We now know that the rate of evolution differs hugely throughout the evolutionary history of species. For example, sponges (primitive marine animals) have been mostly unchanged for about a half of a billion of years, while some bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance within months or even days.

Darwin's understanding was somewhat limited, but the core idea of evolution, and even its main mechanism, natural selection, has remained well supported in light of all new information on extinction etc. (less)
Deep The initial chapters that establish our current knowledge through past events, and historical works and discoveries are sourced either in footnotes or…moreThe initial chapters that establish our current knowledge through past events, and historical works and discoveries are sourced either in footnotes or through visits to museums and sites. Later chapters have interviews with people who have either published findings (such as the concept of the K-T extinction, formation of the anthropocene extinction idea) or who are in the middle of the research (at the Great Barrier Reef, in the forests of Brazil). These people share with us their views on what is happening and what will happen in the near future, so even if something described can't be labelled as a fact, it sounds factual and everything seems to be an educated conclusion.(less)

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Feb 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: blog, non-fiction
Seemed a good time to float this bad mama-jama (spoiler alert: we're screwed):

Looking for a good horror novel that will keep you up late at night? One that features the most remorseless, inventive, and successful serial killer to ever stumble into the written word? One whose body count grows exponentially as his appetite becomes more ravenous, never sated? One who is so adept at killing that he does so without even seeming to try? Well, I have just the ticket: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth K
Mario the lone bookwolf
Ecocides could only be justified with the primate madness gene in Prehistoric times, but nowadays it´s inexcusable.

Archaeologists of the future in millions of years would wonder what has happened, how such devastation could be done in such a short time. They compare volcanic eruptions, climate change, meteorites, changes in the earth's magnetic field, solar storms, gamma ray bursts, etc. with the unique event or people find the ruins of a vanished high culture in the course of the colonization
Emily (Books with Emily Fox)
This is officially the most boring book I've read this year.

There were some interesting moments but they were too few to compensate.
You'll learn more about random rainforest frogs than you ever wanted...

Also I find that while reading some non fiction you have to like the author to a certain extent and I just couldn't here. One moment during the book she writes about how she tried to visit a certain location and asked the lady working at the gift shop to give her a tour. The employee obviously t
Better Dead Than Read

In the Book of Genesis, God creates mankind last, as if anticipating the theory of Darwinian evolution. But the text is somewhat ambivalent about his accomplishment. Whereas all his other creations - time, space, light, plants, sentient creatures - are explicitly deemed ‘good,’ human beings are merely lumped in with everything else as God surveys the world. The biblical author seems to be hedging the blessing (mitzvah: both a command and a favour) of human ‘rule’ over ever
Sep 06, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, science
“Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human – some of my best friends are human! – I will say that it is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring ...more
Riku Sayuj

Dial M for Murder

This is a dark and deeply depressing book, trying hard to be hopeful — on the lines of Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See.

Kolbert's book reminds us that we could be the last couple of generations to witness true diversity, maybe the last to see such magnificent and delicate creatures as the amphibians.

The story of the Sixth Extinction, at least as Kolbert has chosen to tell it, comes in thirteen chapters. Each tracks a species that’s in some way emblematic — the American mast
David Rubenstein
This book is a very engaging examination of extinctions of animal species through the ages. Elizabeth Kolbert adds a wonderfully personal touch to many of the chapters, as she describes her visits to the habitats where various species are dying out. She accompanies scientists and ecologists as they delve into extinctions, past and present. Some biologists are gathering up endangered species, putting them into special reserves and zoo-like habitats where they might be able to survive.

There is no
“When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

I don't recall ever reading a book that SO made me want to curl up in a ball on the floor and just SOB.

The book ends with a chapter entitled The Thing With Feathers, which is hope, according to Emily Dickinson. (Or Woody Allen's nephew, if you know that joke.) Yet this chapter contains some of the more dire information, not to mention the most tear-inducing quotes:
Helen 2.0
Nov 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fic, faves
*hides in apocalypse-safe bunker and cries*

A goosebump-inducing nonfiction read! The Sixth Extinction is told in a part textbook, part narrative style; the author gives readers hard facts mixed into detailed personal accounts of her research trips. In 13 chapters, she tells the stories of several species, some long extinct, some still teetering on the brink of extinction, all with one common enemy - us.

The best part of the book is that Kolbert isn't trying to blame the human race or make her re
Apr 15, 2016 rated it really liked it

In this well-researched book, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert casts a strong light on the damage humans are doing to planet Earth. In one example Kolbert describes declining populations of the golden frog, which is rapidly disappearing from all its native habitats. Turns out humans have inadvertently spread a type of fungus that infects the skin of amphibians and kills them.

Golden Frog

In another example, almost six million North American bats have (so far) died from a skin infection caused by a
"no snow, now ice" by photographer Patty Waymire, National Geographic

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
~~Chief Seattle

When I was a child my favorite books were the Golden Nature Guides about insects, birds, sea shells, and so on. I learned many insect names, as well as those of the butterflies and other animals. I al
Jun 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've read a lot of non-fiction books that are dry and sometimes gets bogged down in details and others that are very engaging but rather light on the meat. And then sometimes, you get a very cogent work with a very rich sampling of science from all different quarters laid out in such a way that it is impossible to believe anything BUT the final summation.

This is one of those works. We are in the middle of the sixth extinction event on Earth. The final result of the dieoff, as of just how many mi
I shied away from reading this for a while imaging that it would be, nay should be, grimmer than the grim saga of Grim Grimson the grim from Grimsby. But it is not, because the unrelenting grimness of the mass extermination occurring now is overshadowed by the relentless bounciness and vigour of the narrative style, if I were to descend in to crude stereotypes (view spoiler) then I would say that is is b ...more
Dave Schaafsma
Jul 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nature, environment
“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 Kohlbert


I finally slow listened to this award-winning and depressing book written by a journalist who helps translate for scientists the truth of our current Anthropocene era:

The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's ecosystems including, but not li
Apr 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book both awed and depressed me.

From page one, Kolbert writes an impressive survey of how destructive mankind has been to the planet. She gives a brief history of the five mass extinctions that have happened, and travels around the world to report on species that are currently going extinct. But the big problem now isn't a giant asteroid -- it's humans. We are such a lethal force that we can unwittingly (or just greedily) wipe out entire species at alarming rates.

There are a lot of good st
A well balanced tour of apparent causes for five past massive extinctions and for the current epoch of the human-caused “Sixth Extinction”. The relatively sudden acceleration of extinctions has a lot of consensus among scientists as defining a new age, the “Anthropocene”.

The author is a journalist who demonstrates a sound knowledge about how science works and its slow and contentious process of reaching consensus conclusions. She travels around the world to visit scientists and sites that are si
One of the most important science books written in the past five years. Kolbert synthesizes science and history effortlessly here.

I kind of view this as Guns Germs and Steel v2, with the focus on the mess we humans have caused and the lengths scientists are going to in order to both understand and hopefully minimize the damage. Excellent individual chapters on the different species of flora and fauna that we have lost recently or are in the process of losing due to the anthropocene era, that is
Paul Weiss
Science writing that should be considered mandatory reading!

Elizabeth Kolbert has achieved a great deal with THE SIXTH EXTINCTION. A book that combines natural history, current news, science, paleontology, history and even, to a certain extent, sociology in a package that is entertaining, informative and eminently readable to the point of being compelling is quite an accomplishment! It's a cautionary tale, to be sure, that bleakly outlines the devastating effect that Homo Sapiens has had and is
Kolbert’s premise, that we are likely in the midst of the Sixth Period of a great extinction in the world’s history, is “a most awful yet interesting” idea, to quote Darwin out of context. Kolbert shares recent (in the past forty years) scientific discoveries, theories, and test results which many of us may not have had a chance to follow with the diligence of a scientist. She is not a scientist but a journalist who has interviewed scientists, and her wonderful easy style makes it simple for us ...more
Olive Fellows (abookolive)
Mar 09, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Very mad at myself that I waited this long to read this. I preferred her newest book (Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future), but this was still amazing. ...more
Mar 22, 2022 rated it really liked it
This Pulitzer-winning work is informative, brilliantly researched, and quite depressing. Kolbert gives a historical account of the big five extinction events, interspersed with the history of paleontology and archeology while keeping the focus on the Anthropocene and the havoc Homo sapiens is wreaking on its environment. I particularly loved the early chapters where she discussed the early days of paleontology and the theories of evolution. To learn how the discoveries that are textbook staples ...more
Joy D
Non-fiction about the previous five mass extinctions of world history and the probability of a sixth extinction being precipitated by humans. Kolbert investigates biological and environmental factors contributing to this phenomenon. She analyzes the current research being conducted by scientists across the globe as well as evidence of past mass extinctions. She travels to these locations and describes her experiences. She reports on a variety of species, some of which are already extinct and oth ...more
Mar 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As most will have realized by now, I declared this March nature/science month. Thus, I'm reading (mostly) only non-fiction books. Many of these are about what was originally known as "natural history", which later became several scientific fields. There are a lot of books about this subject, of course, but I decided to finally catch up on the classics (Darwin, Wallace, Humboldt) and take it from there. Humboldt was the father of what we nowadays consider environmentalism and it was therefore onl ...more
Feb 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology
Kolbert makes a compelling case that we are in the throes of a mass extinction citing example after example of our destruction of the environment and its inhabitants. Fortunately she is a gifted writer, so despite the bleak message we don’t just put down this important book in despair. Reporting on scientists investigating threatened species, she identifies the many ways that we are putting all life at risk. Sometimes our unrestrained native instincts are responsible, others the shortsighted and ...more
Nandakishore Mridula
Feb 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
I often find that engineers (who sometimes believe they are demigods), go berserk at the mention of Greta Thunberg. How dare this child who does not know anything about science, make such statements about climate change? How dare she tell the world to make a paradigm shift and stop using fossil fuels? And - this is the most heinous crime of all - how dare so many people follow her? If there is a problem because of carbon emission (and they are sure there isn't) engineers would find a way out of ...more
Dec 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nature, science
on the dedication page of her landmark 1962 book, silent spring, rachel carson quoted humanitarian, biocentrist, and nobel peace prize winner albert schweitzer thus, “man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. he will end by destroying the earth.” in the ensuing half century since carson’s watershed work first saw print, evidence aplenty has proven the prescience of schweitzer’s sentiment with distressing rapidity. in a new book as incisive and imperative as the late ms. carson’s, ne ...more
Aug 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Urgent, important and sobering. How we impact biodiversity, already since the stone age, and not for the better.
Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear if he ever did.

Elizabeth Kolbert shows a love and awe for nature and biodiversity. She goes far and wide, from Iceland, to the South American rainforests, the fossil sites of North America and Paris museums, in the impressive journey recorded in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatu
Sep 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, creepy, health
Most depressing book that I've ever read. The physical science of man's injury to Earth began since he emerged as a species, and now is at its zenith. In spite of the evidence, not much is being done to reduce the damage. I felt sicker and sicker as I read on, and I hated picking the book up once I'd put it down. As a species, humanity is self-serving and aggressive. I've watched Trump pooh-pooh climate change, knowing that our oceans are becoming acidic which is going to kill off microscope mar ...more
aPriL does feral sometimes
'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert is written in the tone of an engaging magazine article for the general reader. It tells the stories about several geological locations that are important to the history of evolution and extinction.

The author personally visits and describes sites around the world - islands, forests, oceans, caves, museums - some of which take a lot of effort and discomfort to reach. Each site is where an 'eureka!' moment occurred for a scientist. These particular disco
La Crosse County Library
The Sixth Extinction is a book I’ve been wanting to read for years, but haven't, perhaps because of the heavy subject matter discussed in the book blurb. After having read it, I feel that it was a missing piece of the puzzle in my ongoing personal quest to understand the world today in all its craziness.

I really appreciated that the book’s central thesis—that humanity has ushered in a sixth major extinction event via climate change, ocean acidification, introduction of invasive species to new e
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Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

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39 likes · 1 comments
“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.” 116 likes
“A sign in the Hall of Biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: IN PUSHING OTHER SPECIES TO EXTINCTION, HUMANITY IS BUSY SAWING OFF THE LIMB ON WHICH IT PERCHES.” 59 likes
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