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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

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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 prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published February 11, 2014

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About the author

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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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,865 reviews
Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews313 followers
June 2, 2017
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 Kolbert. This is as frightening as it gets, people, and the villain here is us: me, you, and everyone else inhabiting this little blue marble called Earth.

Throughout history, there have been five mass extinction events: the Cretaceous-Paleogene, the Triassic-Jurassic, the Permian-Triassic, the Late Devonian, and the Ordovician-Silurian. All of these involve a cataclysmic shift in environmental conditions, some the result of an external impact. And now Kolbert reports that there may be a sixth extinction: the Anthropocene, caused by the impact of humanity on the environment. Many may believe that this is a byproduct of the Industrial Age, but Kolbert shows us how humans have always had a knack for wreaking wide scale environmental havoc. Always needing and wanting more from our natural resources, we, like kudzu, multiply rapidly, take over every inch of land available to us, and choke out the life that surrounds us.

Kolbert makes the case for recognizing the Anthropocene as a mass extinction event by exploring its casualties and its future victims. As she relates the extinction of the American mastodon, the great auk, and the Neanderthal, as well as the near extinction of the Panamanian golden frog, Hawaiian crow, Sumatran rhino, and several types of bats, one truth becomes increasingly clear: most of these extinctions began to take place when humans entered the environment.

Despite the disheartening nature of the topic, Kolbert writes with dry wit and gallows humor which (for me) always made an appearance at just the right time before things became too depressing. While there is a lot of science here, Kolbert keeps it accessible for those of us who don't while away our days reading scientific journals (you know, while our basic needs and consumer choices destroy everything around us), and her first person narrative keeps it from veering into textbook territory.

There's a lot here that I enjoyed, but three highlights stand out:

1) Kolbert's early chapters about men like Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin, who were among the first to speculate on extinction and evolution. From our modern perspective, it's easy to forget that extinction, in particular, is a relatively new idea. There was a time when many scientists believed that nothing could become extinct over the natural progression of time; the discovery of fossils began to shift human understanding of the world and of creation. Reading as these men stumble in their understanding of the world, shifting and revising hypotheses, and ultimately discovering that there was a world that existed before mankind is fascinating.

2) The chapters on the sea and corals (which may eventually become extinct, taking with them several organisms that live symbiotically with corals) is particularly interesting for someone like myself who is happily landlocked. For those who don't live near or have a relationship with our seas and oceans, it's easy to see it as a vast nothingness and forget about the world teeming below our waters. The rate of ocean acidification is frightening.

3) The concept of a new Pangaea is an intriguing one. The ease with which we travel to other states, countries, and continents has, in a sense, reconstituted Pangaea in that we knowingly (and unknowingly) introduce new and often invasive plant and animal species into new environments. In doing so, these new host environments haven't developed nature's evolutionary safeguards to keep the balance between predator and prey, often with disastrous results.

While Kolbert makes all of this lucid and entertaining, as well as terrifying, I must admit to some fatigue when I got to the final chapters. Reading about mass extinction can really take a toll on someone whose worldview can basically be summed up as "people suck." Reading such incontrovertible evidence, and knowing that I myself cannot escape the guilt of this accusation, is, in the words of Kolbert on The Daily Show, "kind of a downer." However, we need more downers. We need to be more educated about what we're doing to our environment. Early man deserves a pass: you come into a place and think, "Damn. Look at all these mastodons. We can feast like kings!" So you settle in, live a life filled with mastodon hunts and mastodon meat, have several children, dress them in mastodon onesies, kill more mastodons, always assuming there will be more. After all, you've found the great all-you-can-eat mastodon buffet! You have no concept of the impact your consumption is having on the environment. You haven't seen Disney's The Lion King and therefore don't know of the majestic power of the circle of life (nor of the comedic gold of pairing a warthog with a meerkat). Such days of ignorance should be behind us. We know better, so we should do better.

Although, many of us are 4% Neanderthal because apparently early homo sapiens just couldn't resist the seductive power of a ridged brow. So maybe we're not so smart after all.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
805 reviews3,852 followers
April 19, 2020
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 of space. And wonder what might have led to their downfall.
In the retrospective, they are most astounded by how they could notice and know everything about such fatal developments and continue whistling cheerfully, saw on the branch they are sitting, poison themselves comprehensively by contaminating the environment, bite the hand that feeds them, and play Russian Roulette with an automatic weapon. To murder the mother, who has lovingly raised them, secretly and viciously for profit or neglect and let her languish in front of them until she dies as a result of negligence.

The extrapolated development illustrates the explosiveness. In 100 or 250 years, humanity will have eradicated almost all species and only a few adaptable wild species and parasites will represent the remaining fauna and flora.
Everyone else will vegetate in zoos if they are lucky or be stuffed out to be gazed at in extensive areas of natural history museums for extinct species. Since the addition out of the education and culture budget for millions of extinct species will be too expensive, one will probably give away the excess exhibits or throw the stuffed last specimens of the species in the trash, burn them, or give them to the stores of the companies who helped to exterminate for decoration purposes in shop windows or for kids to play with while the parents are shopping. It would be a consistent continuation of the treatment of nature by humans to spit on the grave too after the total annihilation.

The homogenization and massive reduction of biodiversity is in two ways more subtle than direct extinction through habitat destruction. By breeding fewer, more productive species, non-lucrative farm animals and the economical completely worthless wild species are driven to the brink of extinction. The spread of invasive species destroys helpless, natural ecosystems and few very aggressive expanding species and the spread breed, genetically enhanced varieties remain. Globally, habitats are becoming more and more similar, the physical equivalent of the, in the cultural and sociological area, much-criticized Americanization.

The lack of empathy is limited to animals and plants. Genocide is, for just about a century, the most outrageous and disturbing thing that people can be confronted with. Before that, humankind was acting consistently, and with equal rights for every group of victims, so far as that he/she eradicated her/his equals too. Now destruction in unprecedented dimensions is accepted as the inevitable collateral damage of human development and the stupid, endless, exponential economic growth of a self destructive system of madness. "It's just ecocide, that's not so bad. They have no soul or something like that, so calm down, tree hugging hippie leftist."

The conviction that everything can be restored with technology is naive and shortsighted. Human-made machines and infrastructures can be built, maintained and modified, removing a mountain is already a more complicated task, but to bring back to life a sea that only consists of death zones or a desert that once was a forest, borders to an impossibility on the momentary state of the art.

In the very long term, the damage to the natural infrastructure needed for biodiversity can be compensated with the corresponding financial, technological, and material resources using robots, gene- and nanotechnology to remove toxicity and build new habitats, etc. But this is like making a lovely house for a dead person with extreme expenses and an interior decorator in the morbid hope that would bring the person back to life. And extinct is even more definitive than dead, it´s not as if there was indirect immortality with grandkids or something, we are talking about truly forever gone.

Furthermore, ecosystems have evolved over millions of years in circumstances that we do not understand and aren´t interested in investing money to learn more about. Even now there are more open than answered questions and factors and often an element was changed with good intention and had fatal effects instead. At the moment it´s impossible to rebuild a complex ecosystem from an empty, human-made pseudo natural space, just the microbiological part with the right soil conditions is far too tricky. A habitat is needed that not only preserves itself but also stands in a complex and balanced interplay with climate, weather, landforms, and adjacent, other ecosystems, and adapts to evolutionary and climate changes.

Fresh, by humans, decontaminated and reforested habitats will be empty because one will not have genetic samples like the ones from mammoths and dinosaurs because nobody takes them, because the animals die out without it even being noticed and because it´s seen as too expensive to freeze probes from the last survivors in zoos before they die in many places, especially if it´s no cuddly panda, but a nasty snake, critter, or ugly fish, yuk. Surely one will be able to create chimeras, cheap wannabe replicas or classic fantasy creatures. Just the biodiversity, the breadth of variation, and the ingenuity of nature in millions of expressions, which has developed in billions of years, will be lost forever.

Homo Sapiens will not be severely affected or interested in the results anyway. People will not die out, no matter how poisoned and hostile the planet will become because the same technology that allows the destruction of nature will save the destroyers and bring them longer and healthier lives. It will merely make more economic sense to turn the planet back into a habitable and not immediately deadly state when leaving the secure zones or underground bunkers.

It will be a pretty empty planet. The limited creative power of humankind will conjure bad copies of the former biodiversity, but nothing will come close to the original range of variation and diversity of natural evolution some of us are still privileged to see when going outside.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books:
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
551 reviews60.5k followers
September 6, 2018
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 told her she was busy and I couldn't help but resent the author for being salty about it as she wrote that "as far as she could tell they were the only ones there". Like come on.

Don't recommend.
Profile Image for Matt.
936 reviews28.6k followers
September 10, 2021
“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 legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust…”
- Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Depending on your frame of mind, this is either the perfect book to read right now, or the absolute worst.

The world – perhaps you’ve noticed – seems in a very fragile place. Storms have grown fiercer and less predictable. Forest fires sweep across vast swaths of territory. Glaciers are melting and oceans are rising. There is also that matter of the global pandemic that will not end.

With that in mind, you may – or may not – feel in the mood to read about the annihilation of entire species, which is the theme and focus of Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction.

The title of Kolbert’s book comes from the general agreement among scientists that there have been five previous mass extinctions on earth. The most recent occurred around 65 million years ago, when some cataclysmic occurrence – likely an asteroid, perhaps in the Yucatán – killed off the dinosaurs. Now, some of those same scientists believe we are in the midst of another extinction level event, in which entire species are wiped from the face of existence. This time, however, there is no asteroid to blame.

Rather, we – the human race, relative newcomers to planet earth – are the asteroid.

For a pretty grim topic, The Sixth Extinction is quite entertaining. This is science writing at its most accessible. Structured a bit like a travelogue, the book proceeds briskly because Kolbert keeps moving, traveling across the globe – Panama, Italy, the Neandertal Valley in Germany, the acidifying waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea – to meet with the men and women studying this distressing situation. Kolbert intersperses her own investigation with brisk, lively looks back at the history of extinction, and the theories developed to explain why certain groups died off. For instance, Kolbert follows the trail of the great auk, tracing the casual slaughter of the penguin-like creature in the early 19th century. Initially prized by sailors for their meat, the great auk eventually came to be hunted for their feathers, for use as fuel, and as fish bait. Ultimately, they disappeared – which did not go unnoticed by contemporary observers – and Kolbert visits Iceland, where a stuffed remainder of one of the last great auks is preserved.

A book like The Sixth Extinction requires a specific balance to work. To be successful, Kolbert has to combine a lot of different elements and disciplines, including historical writing and biography, the explication of oft-complex scientific concepts, and the results of present-day interviews and reporting. In this, she is incredibly successful.

The Sixth Extinction is artfully structured and transitions seamlessly from the far distant past to the twenty-first century. The prose is clear, occasionally witty, and Kolbert comes across as an engaging tour guide. It is a testament to her apparent professionalism, demeanor, and curiosity that everywhere she goes, she finds smart and interesting people who are not only willing to talk to her at length, but to invite her on their expeditions, whether that is digging in a New Jersey creek bed, exploring a cave full of dying bats, or checking out a cliff in Scotland. Kolbert exhibits a strikingly assured narrative grip, gracefully introducing us to the individuals she meets and the places she goes, without ever making herself the center of the story (which, unfortunately, often happens in this type of hybrid nonfiction).

Honestly, not everything in the The Sixth Extinction was equally interesting. This did not prove a problem, because Kolbert never dwells too long in one place. Furthermore, the sheer variety of subjects that are covered, combined with nimble pacing, ensures that you never get bogged down. If you don’t like one thing, you’ll soon be on to another.

The purpose of Kolbert’s travels was to explore past extinctions in the hope of understanding the ones we are experiencing in our current epoch. The variable in this study is the human race. The arrival of mankind threw a wrench into the workings of many other species, which had developed defense mechanisms that were no longer effective, and often counterproductive. Large mammals – such as mammoths then, or elephants now – have long gestational periods and low reproductive rates. The upside is that when they reach a certain size, these animals can escape predation. That evolutionary advantage disappeared the moment a group of guys with spears and advanced problem solving abilities showed up on the scene. Even if early man could only kill a limited number of mammoths at a time, their low reproductive rates ensured a fatal dwindling, with losses unable to be made good.

Overhunting – which appears to have been an inborn trait of homo sapiens – is only one of many threats humans present to every other living thing. Pollution, clear-cutting, and the simple transmission – often unwittingly – of alien species to new environments, have all taken a toll.

To that end, the only real criticism I have of The Sixth Extinction is that Kolbert never really sums up what this all means. By way of illustration, she devotes an early chapter to the Panamanian golden frog, which may already be extinct in the wild. Kolbert does not, however, explain what the destruction of this specific creature might mean to humanity, which – after all – is my central concern, for obvious reasons. Instead, she falls back on a quote from ecologist Paul Ehrlich: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

That may be so, but it is too diffuse of a summation to amount to a call of action. And perhaps that is the gloomiest aspect of The Sixth Extinction: it does not seem like anything can be done. Certainly, Kolbert finds a lot of people who care, and who are working hard to understand the catastrophe unfolding while we avert our eyes. Yet what are the practical steps when the problem is so widespread and diverse? What measures can be taken when the thing that is killing the golden frog is different from the thing killing the Great Barrier Reef and is different from the thing killing the rhinoceros? Climate change seems to be a big factor here, but it is hardly discussed at all, save for its relationship to ocean acidification.

In short, there is a pervasive sense of doom in The Sixth Extinction, despite its light touch and refusal to lecture. Kolbert appears to have accepted the inevitable, looking ahead to the moment in the future – how long, no one knows – when humans are gone, all our monuments and ingenuities just one more layer in the fossil record. Taken altogether, it is not an inspiring tribute to humans. Nevertheless, a quick survey of the world right now shows that it is probably accurate.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
July 22, 2020
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 everything. If so, his caution has turned out to be justified. Putting the inmates in charge of the asylum has turned out to be a profound design flaw.

But perhaps not for much longer. The species Homo sapiens seems to have run its course. It has overwhelmed the creative matrix which produced it. And it has done so in an evolutionary blink of an eye. Its facility for communication through complex language, as Emil Cioran has said, has filled creation with a glut of consciousness, an intellectual burden which it cannot sustain. The threat is not mankind’s greed, or hostility, or sexual urges but thought itself. Thought, which is language in action, produces cooperative effort, which produces technology, which removes all impediments to the spread of the species.

Except, of course, one impediment: the success of the species itself. It is a species which consumes everything it encounters. This it calls ‘finding a use for,’ or sometimes ‘making life better.’ This is an expected consequence of language-use. As Yuval Harari observes, it is gossip which propelled the species into poll position in the evolutionary race. Members of the species gin each other up to want more of everything: more children, more food, more air, water, minerals... well just more of everything. Isn’t this what ruling is all about? Making things better? Enhancing existence? Realising one’s full potential, as well as that of the species? Isn’t that the practical definition of salvation? Striving for perfection?

One of Stanislaw Lem’s stories turns the tables on the evolutionary story we tell ourselves about being the most developed species, the top of the food chain, the acme of known existence. For Lem all this striving, this wanting to be better, bigger, stronger, more secure, to be something other than what we already are, is an obvious evolutionary defect, a dead end genetic branch that will wither as creation moves on. And what it will move on to is the inertia of what the species now sees dismissively as ‘dead matter.’ This is, of course, obviously the case. Look in any grave yard for confirmation; or in the fossil record; or for that matter into the maw of the nearest astronomical black hole. Entropy, that is to say, that silent, peaceful equality is the heaven that awaits us, the omega point of Teilhard de Chardin.

Meanwhile we are effectively trapped in this bubble of language. We can’t resist it, or dispose of it, or in any way mitigate its profoundly destructive consequences - for us as well as for the other species with which we live. We are doomed to destroy them, as in a Ted Chiang story, simply by perceiving them. Even by naming them, we endanger their existence because it means we have become aware of them as a potential resource. We are prisoners of ourselves. Stories about future threats to human existence through developments in Artificial Intelligence are actually distractions from current reality. Language already controls us.

In this light, it helps to look at the record. The Ordovician extinction occurred over a period of a million years as global temperatures dropped, and was caused by silicate rocks sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. 86% of all species perished. The Devonian extinction, triggered by the development of plant life on land releasing nutrients into the oceans, thus wiping out 75% of marine animals. The Permian extinction was the big one, the proximate cause being methane-producing bacteria. 96% of life on each disappeared. The Triassic extinction has no agreed upon cause; but it wiped out 80% of contemporary species. The Cretaceous extinction, the one with the asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico as its final coup, was relatively mild; only three quarters of known species were eliminated. It too seems like the revenge of dead matter.

Isn’t it interesting that each of these events was precipitated by material, both living and dead, rather far down the purported evolutionary ladder than the most ‘advanced’ organisms then in existence. Evolutionary development carries with it inherent vulnerability to changes in the environment. The less developed, that is the closer to dead matter, the more likely the chances of survival. And dead matter probably only goes extinct in some sort of cosmic singularity like a black hole. Language simultaneously makes us aware and insulates us from this reality. Inside the bubble of language we can rationalise our inevitable fate - science will save us; God has another world waiting for us; the mathematical probabilities for another similar event is low, etc. We know deep down that language is deceiving us but we act like it’s just part of reality.

The implications are obvious. Neither God nor human beings created language, thus contradicting our fundamental language-based conceit. Language evolved from us but is independent of us. And we are addicted to it. We resent the power of language, even as we pretend to use it to further our own. We are at its mercy and we intend, unconsciously but deliberately, to stop its hegemony. Like every other extinction event, this one too is being executed by an ‘inferior’ species upon one which has emanated from it. We are determined to wipe out language, or at least to scramble it so profoundly that its meanings are irrecoverable. The elimination of so many other species along the way is merely collateral damage, unfortunate but necessary. This perhaps is the true significance of the story in Genesis chapter 11 of the Tower of Babel. And it certainly explains Donald Trump’s appeal to the mass of Deplorables.

Kolbert has the trajectory correct but the mechanism wrong. Nothing about the Sixth Extinction is accidental or unwanted. It was inevitable from the moment an idea and a sound or gesture popped into some primitive head and were linked. That was the start of the rot. And there are plenty of folk out there who are willing to go to the wall in order to stop it. Better Dead Than Read is their motto. Heed them; they are serious and dedicated. And they are winning.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
656 reviews7,103 followers
May 12, 2015

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 mastodon, the great auk, an ammonite that disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous alongside the dinosaurs.

The creatures in the early chapters are already gone, and this part of the book is mostly concerned with the great extinctions of the past and the twisting history of their discovery, starting with the work of the French naturalist Georges Cuvier.

The second part of the book takes place very much in the present—in the increasingly fragmented Amazon rainforest, on a fast-warming slope in the Andes, on the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef.

Martyrs to Awareness?

Kolbert’s book also spends much ink tracking the history of humanity’s (well, western at least) awareness of extinction and then the science of studying it. It starts from the biblical conception of all creatures as eternal and changeless to the gradual awareness that some animals might be rare or extinct and eventually to the awareness of Natural selection and the importance of change for life on Earth.

Thomas Kuhn, the twentieth century’s most influential historian of science, has much to say about such paradigmatic revelations: about how people process disruptive information — Their first impulse is to force it into a familiar framework: hearts, spades, clubs. Signs of mismatch are disregarded for as long as possible—the red spade looks “brown” or “rusty.” At the point the anomaly becomes simply too glaring, a crisis ensues—what the psychologists dubbed the “’My God!’ reaction.”

This pattern was, Kuhn argued in his seminal work,  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , so basic that it shaped not only individual perceptions but entire fields of inquiry. Data that did not fit the commonly accepted assumptions of a discipline would either be discounted or explained away for as long as possible. The more contradictions accumulated, the more convoluted the rationalizations became. “In science, as in the playing card experiment, novelty emerges only with difficulty,” Kuhn wrote.

But then, finally, someone came along who was willing to call a red spade a red spade. Crisis led to insight, and the old framework gave way to a new one. This is how great scientific discoveries or, to use the term Kuhn made so popular, “paradigm shifts” took place.

The history of the science of extinction can be told as a series of paradigm shifts. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the very category of extinction didn’t exist. The more strange bones were unearthed—mammoths, Megatherium, mosasaurs—the harder naturalists had to squint to fit them into a familiar framework. And squint they did. The giant bones belonged to elephants that had been washed north, or hippos that had wandered west, or whales with malevolent grins. When Cuvier arrived in Paris, he saw that the mastodon’s molars could not be fit into the established framework, a “My God” moment that led to him to propose a whole new way of seeing them. Life, Cuvier recognized, had a history. This history was marked by loss and punctuated by events too terrible for human imagining. “Though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world” is how Kuhn put it.

Are the early participants of Humanity’s ‘Mega Kill’, the ‘Sixth Extinction’, if you will, martyrs to humanity’s self-awareness as immoral killers -- required to make us finally think through to the consequences of our actions?

Anthropocene & Morality

Humanity might finally be capable of perceiving the change that has been wrought, and moving into the most crucial understanding of all — that our survival depends on preserving Earth as close to how we inherited it as possible!

The emblematic extinctions are valuable because they serve as blazing sign posts. The eco-system might be too slow in its actions to warn us in time, but our aesthetic sensibility might be capable of warning us in advance when we are too far off the tracks. That might in turn finally engage our moral responsibility for creating an Anthropocene in which most of our co-inheritors of the planet cannot survive. ‘Love thy neighbor’? Can we? Or will we continue to shy away from any moral colorings to the argument? Even as we commit to and associate ourselves with blatant Ecocide?

Our biggest threat is ecological, human-induced change and, to be more specific, rate of change:

When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky in a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,583 followers
August 29, 2014
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 single cause for the various massive extinctions. Some were due to sudden changes in climate, some due to catastrophes like meteors, some due to disease, and some are due to humans. For example, the mastodon's extinction coincides with the spread of humans. The original penguin--the auk--became extinct due to a combination of factors, including volcanoes and human hunters in the nineteenth century. Coral reefs are dying off because of increasing acidification; much of the excessive carbon dioxide produced by humans is absorbed by the ocean, where the ph level is become less base.

Homo sapiens lived at the same time as other hominid species, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Visually, Neanderthals were not so different from us. If you gave one a shave and a suit, a Neanderthal might look like this:
So, the question comes up why did these other nearly-human species go extinct, while humans survived? The question is especially appropriate, as there is DNA evidence that humans interbred with some of these other species. The answer is very possibly that humans killed them off.

What makes this book so special, is Kolbert's writing style. She makes me feel like I'm "right there" with the biologists and ecologists. She personally visits the habitats, and goes into some depth talking with the specialists. Each chapter becomes an adventure. Sometimes the subject matter becomes depressing, as it is about the dying (or killing) off of species. But the writing is so engaging, that I highly recommend this book!

Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
April 20, 2023
“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 Kolberg


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 limited to, anthropogenic climate change. It roughly dates back 12-15 K years when humans began to really impact the environment. Some folks refer to 1945 as beginning The Great Acceleration during which the socioeconomic and earth system trends are increasing dramatically, especially after WWII. What trends? The opposite of slow and small.

I know the basic facts of this book, that we are very much well under way in the sixth mass extinction in half a billion years. If this has always sounded a little distant and possibly comforting to us (oh, well, it’s happened before! It can happen again!), we miss the point:

"In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches"—Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich

And this sawing happens in part because of climate change.

"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 all those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly."

In other words, it’s not just a lonely polar bear on a chunk of ice, very far away; it is about us and not decades later, but now or never. Which is to say, we lose species every day, not every year, and when most of the planet species are gone by mid-century, as we now expect, we have to take very seriously the possibility of humankind’s extinction. And Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring (1962), told us but we didn’t really listen.

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.” —Carson

“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world. This capacity predates modernity”—Kolberg
Profile Image for Melki.
6,037 reviews2,387 followers
July 9, 2015
“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:

"We're seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings." ~ Walter Alvarez

"Right now we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, this time caused solely by humanity's transformation of the ecological landscape." ~ plaque displayed at the American Museum of History's Hall of Biodiversity


Throughout history, there have been five other mass extinctions that led to "a profound loss of biodiversity." But the cause for this one lies squarely on our shoulders.

It is estimated 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.

Let's take a look at some of the things we stand to lose.

The Panamanian Golden Frog
"I sought a career in herpetology because I enjoy working with animals. I did not anticipate that it would come to resemble paleontology." ~ Joseph Mendelson, a herpetologist at Zoo Atlanta

The Asian Elephant

Coral Reefs
. . . if current emissions trends continue, within the next fifty years or so "all coral reefs will cease to grow and start to dissolve."

The Sumatran Rhino


The Marianas Flying Fox
This bat has become a victim of the accidental introduction of the brown tree snake.

Disastrously introduced species are discussed in a chapter entitled The New Pangaea.
Though Kolbert is no Mary Roach, she does try to inject some humor whenever possible. I got a laugh out of her account of Australia's problem with the cane toad, a critter purposely introduced to control sugarcane beetles. Preschoolers are enlisted to help in reducing the toad's numbers:

To dispose of the toads humanely, the council instructs children to "cool them in a fridge for 12 hours" and then place them "in a freezer for another 12 hours."

Be careful when you reach for a popsicle in that house!

So, besides losing lots of wonderful wildlife, why should we care?

"In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches." ~ Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich

Yep, we could be next.

Rudy Park by Darrin Bell and Theron Heir, July 6, 2015

There are things we can do, but you know how we are when it comes to cutting back and making sacrifices.

Are we willing to do them?

If you want me, I'll be on the floor sobbing.
Profile Image for Helen 2.0.
408 reviews909 followers
May 25, 2017
*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 readers feel guilty. She only explains the effect we have on our earth and where this could lead (possibly to world domination by giant tool-making rats.) The message is simply, "Here is the information; you decide what to do with it."

Would recommend highly.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,393 reviews4,904 followers
January 5, 2022

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 different fungus, also accidentally spread by people.

North American Bats

Perhaps less ecologically-minded people might think "who cares about frogs and bats?" But all species on Earth are part of an interactive ecosystem, and the disappearance of any one organism might set off a domino effect that has unseen consequences down the line.


Moreover, these sad occurrences are just the teeny tip of a humongous iceberg when it comes to changes wrought by human activity.

Species extinction is not a recent phenomenon on Earth. In fact there have been five documented instances of mass extinctions (the disappearance of a large number of species in a short time) in the course of the planet's history. These are:

• The Ordovician-Silurian extinction, about 440 million years ago, thought to be caused by cycles of glaciation and melting.

Life at the Ordovician-Silurian Extinction

• The Late Devonian extinction, about 360-375 million years ago. The cause is unknown but some experts suggest periods of global cooling and glaciation.

Life at the Late Devonian Extinction

• The Permian-Triassic extinction, about 250 million years ago, which may have resulted from an asteroid impact or massive volcanic eruptions (or both). This was the largest extinction event in Earth's history, wiping out 95 percent of species living at the time.

Life at the Permian-Triassic Extinction

• The Triassic-Jurassic extinction, about 200-215 million years ago, apparently caused by colossal lava floods - and perhaps global warming - related to the breakup of Pangaea (a supercontinent made of all Earth's landmasses).

Life at the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction

• The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, about 66 million years ago, thought to be due to an asteroid impact. Evidence for this is the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. This extinction is well known in popular culture because it wiped out the dinosaurs.

Life at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction

Each extinction event left vacant ecological niches and - over time - these were filled by the expansion of remaining species and the evolution of new organisms. Taking into account all the cycles of extinction and speciation in the planet's history, scientists speculate that 99.9 percent of species that lived on Earth are gone. Unfortunately, humans - by causing profound changes in Earth's ecosystems - may now be causing the sixth mass extinction. Examples of what humans are doing to Earth include:

• Burning fossil fuels, which adds CO2 to the atmosphere. This has a dual effect. It causes global warming, which affects the distribution (and survival) of plants and animals; and it acidifies the oceans, causing calcite to dissolve. Thus, coral reefs are being destroyed and molluscs are getting holes in their shells.

• Destroying habitats to accommodate expanding human populations. This includes cutting down forests, constructing roads and buildings, and cultivating monoculture farms - all of which demolishes the homes of native organisms.

• Transferring organisms to new habitats. When people started moving from place to place they - purposely or not - took other organisms with them. For instance, brown rats - which seem to be indestructible - rode ships to almost every corner of the world, ravaging native species; rabbits brought to Australia as food animals became one of the biggest pests on the continent; brown snakes, introduced to Guam, wiped out nearly all the native birds; and kudzu vines - introduced to the U.S. from Asia - cover and smother all vegetation in their path.

Kudzu smothers native vegetation

It's estimated that people are moving 10,000 species around the world every day, mostly in supertanker ship ballast. The consequences of this are potentially disastrous for indigenous plants and animals everywhere.

• Overharvesting and hunting animals to extinction. In the North Sea, Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and East China Sea, overfishing has severely depleted fish stocks.

In addition, many animals have been completely wiped out by humans, including the dodo, Tasmanian tiger, passenger pigeon, Steller's sea cow, and great auk (a flightless bird). In a sad anecdote Kolbert describes how - on July 3, 1844 - a hunter named Sigurður Ísleifsson strangled the world's last two great auks on Eldey Island, near Iceland.

Great Auks

In "The Sixth Extinction" Kolbert sounds the alarm about humans wreaking changes on Earth in the current era - dubbed the "Anthropocene."

With luck, Kolbert's book might help persuade concerned people to stop damaging the environment, curtail global warming, and save threatened species. Some measures are already in place: the U.S. has an "Endangered Species Act" designed to protect imperiled organisms; international agreements have been made to alleviate global warming; and "frozen zoos" store DNA from thousands of plants and animals, in hopes of resurrecting them if they disappear. Still, it may be too little too late.

As far as the Earth is concerned, a "sixth extinction" could be just another cataclysmic event from which the planet will gradually recover. For humans though...well...we might just wipe ourselves out in such a catastrophe. If so, something will inevitably take our place. Elizabeth Kolbert (half jokingly) suggests it might be giant intelligent rats (ha ha ha).

Some people think humans can counteract the harm we've done to the Earth. One "solution" for global warming, for example, involves spraying salt water into low-lying clouds, to enhance their ability to reflect sunlight. Even if this worked, though, it would solve only one problem of many. In the extreme case of irreparable harm to Earth, some optimists(?) believe the human race will survive by colonizing other planets. Only time will tell.

Kolbert's book is well-written, engaging, and personal - with anecdotes based on her own observations as well as interviews with scientists she accompanied on their research trips. I'd recommend this enlightening and interesting book to everyone interested in the Earth's future.

FYI: If you like the 'move to other planets' scenario you might enjoy the novel Seveneves by Neal Stephenson...which has a related theme.

You can read my book reviews at: http://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot.com/
Profile Image for Jessaka.
901 reviews137 followers
December 11, 2020
"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 also remember seeing so many different varieties of wildlife back then. Little did I know then that in later years I would look for the birds, butterflies and insects of my youth and not see many of them. I jump for joy when I see a praying mantis, an inch worm, or a walking stick. We are losing our bees, and I seldom see those either. If we lose them all we lose our fruits and other plants that need pollinated. China has to hand pollinate now. The only butterfly I see here are black swallowtails. What happened to the buckeye, the yellow swallowtail, and all the others?

This year I learned that black swallowtails love fennel, so I was given some fennel to plant in hope that it would draw more of them to my garden. One day I saw two caterpillars on it, and they had eaten all the fennel, As I was watching them, they crawled off to look for more food. Not finding any, they crawled back onto the fennel. I called a friend who asked me to bring the caterpillars over to her house. She put them in a jar with fennel where she could keep them safe from the birds. They made cocoons, hatched and flew off. Why do we even have to do this? What happened?

Little did I know back in my youth that we would be losing wild life. There is so much we didn’t know back then, but then I remember my 8th grade teacher, Mr. Bailey, telling us about the book "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, about a time when we would not be hearing song birds and other sounds of nature. No one listened then; they still don't listen. When it is silent they will listen and not hear a thing.

Like "Silent Spring" this book was written as another warning, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is easy to understand and at times it is enjoyable, that is, if you like reading about nature.

Did you know that there is a flower that ants live inside of, and that the flower allows them to live there because the ants kill other insects that may try to harm it? Did you know that there are such things as antbutterflies that swarm around army ants, and that they live off the droppings of the antbirds that also swarm around the flower?

I love reading that kind of information, but then again, we are that sixth extinction that she writes about. It is sad to see what we are doing to this planet and to learn that many species are dying daily. My brother once said, "We don't deserve this planet." How true.

The author said some things that made me feel a little better but not by much. She mentioned that during the last extinctions new life forms evolved. New life forms sound encouraging, but who wants to lose what we have now?

I often think of how much we have Junked out this earth. I wonder if it will die, or if something will happen that will save it. When I read this next paragraph I thought of how nice it would be to have all of our Junk reduced to the size of a cigarette paper. The author mentioned a scientist, Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, who "is convinced that even a moderately competent stratigrapher will, at the distance of a hundred million years or so, be able to tell that something extraordinary happened at the moment in time that counts for us as today. This is the case even though a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”

Other quotes: “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.”

“Under business as usual, by mid-century things are looking rather grim,” he told me a few hours after I had arrived at One Tree. We were sitting at a beat-up picnic table, looking out over the heartbreaking blue of the Coral Sea. The island’s large and boisterous population of terns was screaming in the background. Atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira paused: “I mean, they’re looking grim already.”

“Having freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth’s biological and geochemical systems. By disrupting these systems—cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans—we’re putting our own survival in danger.”

“Ninety percent of all species on earth had been eliminated.”

“According to the UN Environment Programme, the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the "natural" or "background" rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65m years ago. Around 15% of mammal species and 11% of bird species are classified as threatened with extinction.” ~~John Vidal, environment editor

Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,891 followers
May 25, 2021
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 then I would say that is is because the stereotypical American personality of the US author shines through.

This definitely reportage, it is not a call to arms like This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate to mobilise or inspire activists, this is more in the tradition of this is happening and how some people are reacting. The key thing is that if you like shell fish or crustaceans, best eat them now while you can.

Kolbert spends part of the book, maybe a third to half, discussing more or less ancient extinctions and mass extinctions, and the rest discussing the contemporary situation, as she tells it there are several inter-related crises taking place. On the one hand there is climate change and acidification of the oceans (which is why you need to eat all the Lobster Thermidor that you can, preferably as you read this) this is causing mass extinction, at the same time Human activity, generally moving around and either deliberately or thoughtlessly moving other species about is increasing diversity everywhere but also reducing the numbers of species - for example the human colonisation of the Pacific introduced pigs and rats to lots of islands that didn't have any mammals other than bats, but the rats and the people consumed in one way or another a lot of the local species into extinction. This, Kolbert says, still happens today citing fungal infections introduced into the Americas in recent years that are doing a fine job of wiping out bat and frog species. So even if by some miracle climate change and the acidification of the oceans could be halted or even reversed we still have to allow for continuing extinctions on a massive scale simply through human carelessness . Or to put it another way when the body is found in the Library it is a fair guess that although the victim was shot through the heart, they had also been beaten about the back of the head with the lead pipe, after having been earlier poisoned and finally hung.

Kolbert discusses attempts to preserve the Sumatran Rhino, the general impression is that we are so ignorant and arrogant in relations to the animals that we may attempt to save, that any success has to be ascribed as much to luck as to effort - the US zoologists responsible for Sumatran Rhinos for instance assumed that the Rhinos would be perfectly happy to live on a diet of hay until they started to die, a story which gave me flash backs to reading Isabel Charman's The Zoo. Somewhere Kolbert observes contra Burns in To a Mousethat it is not so much a question of "I'm truly sorry Man's dominion/Has broken Nature's social union", more that the existence of humans is intrinsically disruptive to ecosystems, there was no living in harmony in nature from her point of view. I felt on reflection that this was a reassertion of American exceptionalism by other means (and expanded generously to embrace all people ). Is it not true of most if not all species that they change the ecosystem? We just seem to be better at destroying all other life forms. However she also misses a trick here and comes close to normalising this sixth extinction as merely a sign of our Augustinian intrinsically sinful and fallen natures rather than seeing that what is happening is particularly intense and seemingly unstoppable precisely because of Capitalism and the pursuit of perpetual economic growth and ever growing profits.

As I said it is reportage, she felt free to unironically travel to various locations round the world, despite plainly knowing from her own reportage the damage this does through either causing climate change or moving species from one place to another, apres nous le deluge .

The writing is lively but of a kind, that if like me the thumb is clumsy and turns several pages at once that you don't miss anything, and why someone bothered to add a few black and white illustrations of no particular relevance to anything I don't know. Anyway if you like to feast on the shell fish you might have about a century left, but thereafter, there will be lots more plankton, yummy.

Personally I found Silent Spring, although older and more limited in scope, far more moving, but if you prefer your disaster reading to be more up to date and without the added grimness of 'somebody was complaining about this decades ago and not enough was done' then this is a good choice.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,099 followers
June 26, 2018
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 millions of species will succumb to the tipped balance of the biosphere, is yet to be known.

But let's put it this way: if you were just informed that there were no jobs in your town and that everyone else was just told that 1/3 of the jobs would remain for the next six months, and then after that, they would leave as well, you'd decide to move away. Right? So, you try to, only you find out that someone has just destroyed all the roads in or out of your town and there's no supply line for foods or services. Imagine the chaos. How would you survive? How would anyone? Now assume you slow that process down just enough that no one or very few people living there have a clue as to the reality of this situation. Belts tighten, poverty increases, some may try to move away but get crushed under the wheels of a much larger machine.

Now extrapolate that situation to every other town in the world.

And then overlay the problem to every other species in the world. Dice up ecospheres, destroy the homes and habitats there, and only the fleet of foot can survive... but where do they go? They're an invasive species now. They take on and live or die in someone else's backward. If it's a human's backyard, it'll get killed. Rinse, repeat. Add disease, and predatory species filling in stressed niches, and you've got a pandemic. Across all species.

Now, remember, a few hundred years or even a few thousand is just a flash in the pan for extinctions. Not all come from meteorites or volcanoes. We probably didn't kill off the Neanderthals by hunting. Economics works just as well. And even if a tribe hunts down a wooly mammoth every ten years, the gestation is slow enough that it would still bring a downward pressure on the species until it's gone in several thousand years. Period. And this isn't even accounting for the widespread death in rainforests now.

Add global warming, acidification of the ocean, the deaths of the coral reefs, the disappearance of the frogs, the bees, and from there, the tipping point that will eradicate larger species as they begin to wipe out other species because their food is disappearing, too, and we've got a major dieback.

In hundreds of years, or even 50, our world might become a bonefield. An optimistic outlook is 25%-50% of everything dead.


Truly a sobering book. One of the very best I've read on extinction events. Only, this one might be ours.

Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,719 followers
April 24, 2017
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 stories in this book, including the efforts of researchers who are desperately trying to save various species. I don't regularly read science books, but I'm glad I picked up this one. It's a good reminder of how important our environment is to our survival -- we need to do better of taking care of our planet. A lot better, if we want to survive another mass extinction.

Highly recommended for readers wanting a good overview of the subject.

Opening Passage
(This intro is so great I had trouble deciding where to end it.)

Beginnings, it's said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name -- nothing does -- but it has the capacity to name things.

As with any young species, this one's position is precarious. Its numbers are small, and its range restricted to a slice of eastern Africa. Slowly its population grows, but quite possibly then it contracts again -- some would claim nearly fatally -- to just a few thousand pairs.

The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push into regions with different climates, different predators, and different prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; farther inland, they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle, they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe, they encounter creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living on the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creatures and then, by one means or another, kill them off.

The end of this affair will turn out to be exemplary. As the species expands its range, it crosses paths with animals twice, ten, and even twenty times its size: huge cats, towering bears, turtles as big as elephants, sloths that stand fifteen feet tall. These species are more powerful and often fiercer. But they are slow to breed and are wiped out.

Although a land animal, our species -- ever inventive -- crosses the sea. It reaches islands inhabited by evolution's outliers: birds that lay foot-long eggs, pig-sized hippos, giant skinks. Accustomed to isolation, these creatures are ill-equipped to deal with the newcomers or their fellow travelers (mostly rats). Many of them, too, succumb.

The process continues, in fits and starts, for thousands of years, until the species, no longer so new, has spread to practically every corner of the globe. At this point, several things happen more or less at once that allow Homo sapiens, as it has come to call itself, to reproduce at an unprecedented rate. In a single century the population doubles; then it doubles again, and then again. Vast forests are razed. Humans do this deliberately, in order to feed themselves. Less deliberately, they shift organisms from one continent to another, reassembling the biosphere.

Meanwhile, an even stranger and more radical transformation is under way. Having discovered subterranean reserves of energy, humans begin to change the composition of the atmosphere. This, in turn, alters the climate and the chemistry of the oceans. Some plants and animals adjust by moving. They climb mountains and migrate toward the poles. But a great many - at first hundreds, then thousands, and finally perhaps millions -- find themselves marooned. Extinction rates soar, and the texture of life changes.

No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable events have occurred. Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they're put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early to say whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five, it becomes known as the Sixth Extinction.

(Rereading this intro gave me chills again. Kolbert is such a good writer. She's able to take complex scientific ideas and explain them to a layperson like me. That is an admirable skill.)
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,538 followers
February 10, 2015
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 significant in the history of discovery about extinctions, giving focus to specific species that illustrate themes and current issues. For some, putting herself into the picture represents a distraction, but I found the approach an engaging way to put the reader into the picture and humanizing the ecological scientists on the job.

I think all of us are a bit punch drunk over revelations in pieces. One decade we hear of coral dying, and as I recall I could drive on in life thinking that in remote ocean atolls, far from pollution, they will thrive. Another decade you will have heard about disappearing frogs. Sad, but not really bowled over, thinking maybe acid rain, which is getting better; then it was some kind of fungus—then, okay, nothing to feel guilty about and maybe they will come back. In more recent years, the decimation of bats is one more blow, any human cause of the mystery obscure. Years later another weird fungus is identified as a cause. And over the long haul we have grown up with the background threats to survival among top predators like tigers, exotics like rhinos, and all the great apes, a progression obviously tied to human development and deforestation, and illegal hunting. All that leaves me praying sufficient reserves and parks (and zoos) can put their end on pause.

All this bad news sits heavy in a jumble. Why Kolbert is a boon with this is by accommodating lots of individual cases in the frame of a big picture. And then she gives emerging themes some life through stories from the work of current and historical scientists. The first inferences of extinctions by Cuvier, the geological gradualism of Lyell linked by Darwin to the slow succession of species outcompeting others. Geological epochs on the order of 100 million years get tied to massive changes in the fossil record, which eventually are recognized as mass extinction events and not an ordinary process of natural selection. Major environmental changes of varying types are being applied to the five major mass extinctions. For the last big transition, there was nothing gradual about it. The history of the father and son team, Luis and Walter Alvarez, pursuing against great resistance the asteroid theory for the disappearance the dinosaurs is nicely told by Kolbert.

An older idea for demise of the dinosaurs

And now if you begin add up all the extinctions in our current epoch, it begins to approximate the scale of some of these ancient patterns. The background rate of vertebrate extinctions has been estimated as on the order of one per several hundred years, but these days we’re talking about thousands of times faster.

Here is a short summary of the major conclusions
There have been very long uneventful stretches and very occasionally revolution on the surface of the earth. To the extent we can identify the causes of these revolutions, they’re highly varies: glaciation in the case of the end-Ordovician extinction, global warming and changes in ocean chemistry at the end of the Permian, an asteroid impact in the final seconds of the Cretaceous. The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption, but “one weedy species.”

She catches me in a relatively ignorant state about the impact of global warming on the acceleration of species extinctions. Like many of us, the threat of global warming on a limited number of arctic mammals dominated my conception of impact (the image of the polar bear on the melting ice is iconic). I missed out on climate change impact in the tropical latitudes. For example, the loss of corals, and all the species that depend on their reefs, is global due to ocean acidification tied directly to the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere (a small rise in pH is enough to hinders the metabolic precipitation of calcium into calcium carbonate). It’s happening too fast for the coral to adapt and evolve in step with the changes.

I also never conceived that modest temperature changes could change the balance of competition in the local environment of tropical ecologies and cause extinctions. Tropical areas are hit harder in terms of species loss, partly because that is where the lion’s share (so to speak) of species reside. While there are only 5,550 mammals, there are zillions of invertebrates and plants, and they are incredibly specialized in the tropics (and the vast majority remain unidentified). My picture of warm climate species just advancing en masse to higher latitudes as the earth warms does not conform to reality. A long-term research site in the Peruvian Amazon shows how many species just don’t make the translocation (especially trees and species that depend on them). And studies at isolated plots of wilderness in Brazil reveal the adverse effects of fragmentation of ecologies,

Part of the big picture that this book helps me with arises from moving the camera back on the time scale for the Anthropocene epoch. If you just consider the industrial age and global warming, you are led to think in terms of the last century or two. But from the time of Darwin, there were already reasoned arguments that man was likely responsible for the global loss of the so-called megafauna, i.e. critters like mastodons, mammoths, cave bears, giant elk, saber-tooth tigers, ground sloths (and a whole weird set in Australia). Thus, it is fair to put the boundary of the new age as far back as the middle of the last ice age. On the same scale, it seems likely that Homo sapiens did away with the Neanderthals (though some hybridizing through interbreeding modifies that picture a bit). A brilliant Swede working in Germany was able from DNA analysis of bones to identify two other humanoids that lost out in the final race to the future (hobbit sized Homo florsiensis and the Denisovans).

Another man-caused impact on species loss is tied to the “Columbian Exchange”, which since 1492 involves worldwide transportation of species. The invasive species cause extinctions when in the new environment they no longer have their usual predators. Kolbert explains how this “New Pangaea” results in loss of biodiversity. Creatures like rats turn out to be the big winners. It’s nice that the New World got earthworms for the first time from Europe, but who knows what they displaced. When a fungus out of the blue takes out frogs worldwide and bats in a fast spreading wave, invasive species linked to human activity rises to the fore in theories of likely cause.

Somehow I will have to digest her grim summary points:
It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh water mollusks, a third of all sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.
What matters is that people change the world.
This capacity predates modernity, though, of course, modernity is its fulfilled expression. Indeed, this capacity is probably indistinguishable from the qualities that make us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.

If you want to grieve over lost species, I recommend Cokinos’ Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. If you want to travel with a writer to visit and glory in what of endangered species can still be experienced in natural environments, I hope you try Safina’s The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. If you are ready to face up to the pickle we are in, try learning more of the inconvenient truths through this book.

Profile Image for Paul Weiss.
1,251 reviews233 followers
October 17, 2022
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 having having on its environment since our arrival some 100,000 years ago.While THE SIXTH EXTINCTION deftly avoids falling into the trap of becoming a left-wing tree hugger's manifesto, it unequivocally suggests that our effect on the world, including the recipe for our own demise as a species, may have already been put irreversibly in place. Certainly, the take away from the book is that, if we are to have any hope at all for rescuing the myriad species around us from shuffling off this mortal coil forever, the time to act is yesterday!

Paul Weiss
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
September 16, 2019
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 the era dominated by us, humankind.

All of the chapters resonated with me, but there is a poignant chapter called Islands on Dry Land. The study centered on small acreage, less than a square mile in some cases, at isolated research stations in the Amazon rainforest that are now surrounded by clearcuts and farming. The news after twenty years of study isn’t good. These oases lost the diversity of flora, birds, mammals and insects at precipitous rates although it took a few years for the effects to multiply. In the early years the fauna flocked to these unspoiled areas as sanctuaries but there was not enough contiguous wilderness to support much of any diversity long term.

I bring this up because I grew up on a farm in Michigan with wetlands and forests nearby but all of these small acreage plots, similar to most of the lower peninsula, are disconnected patches. You are hard pressed to find any wilderness more than a mile from a road there. I could observe even at a young age that despite the adaptability of white tailed deer, foxes, raccoons, skunks, and opossums to this patchwork environment they do not make it healthy and diverse. Admittedly the birds do better especially with Michigan’s wetland laws. The introduction of more alpha predators like wolves would help the diversity but with so much livestock around this is a hard sell. This lack of fauna and to a large degree flora diversity has been a problem for more than one hundred and fifty years so not sure the genie can be put back in the bottle but re-wilding the land in contiguous areas would go a long ways.

5 stars. Enjoyed immensely.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
January 16, 2015
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 to understand.

What Kolbert has done here is to overlay a timeline transparency of extinctions over the history of the earth’s geologic record and mankind’s progress with which we are more commonly familiar. Kolbert is merely reporting in this book, not advocating, though the reader comes away with an awakened sense of attention and sense of the irony that man himself may be the instrument of his own destruction.

Kolbert is what could be called a “neocatastrophist.” She believes that the scientific record shows that conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t---“long periods of boredom interrupted by occasionally by panic. Though rare, these moments of panic are disproportionately important.” Her reportage brings her to the conclusion that we are in the midst of a great extinction and that in the future…far into the future, the geologic record will clearly show something extraordinary happened in the hundreds of thousands of years of human habitation. But it may be visible only to giant rats, the one species she concludes may be likely to survive and thrive.

While at first Kolbert shares current examples of species extinction happening right now, gradually she comes to zero in on probable cause: habitat modification caused by humans. She takes us through a riveting series of investigations scientists around the world are conducting to test how species adapt to changes in environment like carbon dioxide levels, for instance. Since continents are so well-travelled now, there are fewer areas uncontaminated by introduced species which may or may not be invasive or destructive to native species. Kolbert argues that man’s unparalleled and insatiable need to discover, innovate, and change his environment was like “bringing a gun to a knife fight.”
”To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”
That is not to say that we couldn’t slow the event down a little, at least for humans, if we began to pay attention at this point. “As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world.” We are just witnessing the outcomes now.

Kolbert writes “Though it may 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.” Perhaps American Indians with their roaming, nomadic habits, no fixed abode, and principles including commune with nature and not taking more than they needed to survive, may have been the last great environmentalists. They had a light footprint, didn’t they? Or am I completely wrong about that?

In the last couple of paragraphs, Kolbert points out that some scientists are seriously considering reengineering the atmosphere by scattering sulfates in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back to space, or alternatively, to decamp to other planets. That, so far, is their best work. Perhaps if we just cut back on consumption, and left fossil fuels in the ground, we’d live long enough to figure out a better option.

Kolbert’s thesis ought to spark discussion, if nothing else. But we may also be witnessing the real-time devolution of our own species…no talk, no compromise. Get my gun.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews656 followers
May 17, 2023
The Sixth Extinction is very interesting and well-written. Ms. Kolbert has pulled together a wide array of current research to argue persuasively that we are in the middle of a human-caused extinction event. The book would have been a five-star review for me, but I was more familiar with the material than I expected. Still, definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for Mohammad Hrabal.
295 reviews201 followers
June 10, 2022
اگر به زیست‌شناسی و موضوعاتی مانند تکامل، انقراض، آرایه شناسی و زمین‌شناسی و مباحثی مانند چینه‌شناسی، دیرینه‌شناسی، مسائل زیست محیطی و ... علاقه‌مند هستید، این کتاب را مطالعه کنید. البته این کتاب تخصصی نیست و برای عموم نوشته ‌شده است؛ مطالب آن سهل و راحت هستند و از این بابت نگران نباشید. قبل ‌از خواندن این کتاب در مورد ترجمه‌های صورت ‌گرفته از آن تحقیق کوچکی کردم. متوجه شدم که پیشنهاد بیشتر افراد ترجمه نیک گرگین از نشر ثالث هست که قبلاً ترجمه انسان خردمند را از ایشان خوانده بودم و با توجه به این مسئله سراغ ترجمه ایشان رفتم. ولی متأسفانه از ترجمه این کتاب توسط ایشان راضی نبودم. نمی‌گویم ترجمه بد بود ولی ترجمه خوبی هم نبود. خصوصا ترجمه و معادل‌یابی واژه‌های علمی (زیست‌شناسی، زمین‌شناسی) بعضاً درست نبودند. فکر می‌کنم کسی باید این کتاب را ترجمه کند که با علوم تجربی تا حدودی آشنا باشد و این برای ترجمه بهتر کتاب مفید است. بعضی خطوط هم (خیلی کم) ترجمه نشده بودند (که برایم خیلی عجیب بود)؛ البته من به‌صورت گزینشی و یا در مواردی که مشکل داشتم کتاب را با متن انگلیسی مطابقت می‌دادم و همه کتاب را مطابقت ندادم.
از طرفی با رجوع به پی‌دی‌اف انگلیسی این کتاب متوجه شدم که بخش‌هایی از کتاب، البته نه متن اصلی کتاب، توسط مترجم ترجمه نشده‌اند و یا آنها هم که نیاز به ترجمه نداشته‌اند (مانند کتاب‌شناسی) در کتاب نیامده‌اند که شامل: ۱. دو سخن از ویلسون و بورخس ابتدای کتاب. ۲. تذکر نویسنده ابتدای کتاب. ۳. سپاسگزاری نویسنده انتهای کتاب. ۴. پانویس‌ها یا فوت نت‌ها و رفرنس‌های نویسنده. ۵. کتاب‌شناسی منتخب در پایان کتاب. ۶. توضیح و منبع عکس‌ها. ۷. نمایه. ۸. درباره نویسنده، می‌شود. شاید از نظر مترجم یا ناشر این موارد بی‌اهمیت بوده‌اند.
توصیف داروین درباره‌ی صخره‌های مرجانی به‌عنوان «شگفت‌انگیزترین پدیده‌ها در جهان» هنوز به قوت خود باقی است. درحقیقت، هرچه بیشتر درباره‌ی صخره‌ها می‌دانیم، برایمان شگفت انگیز تر جلوه می‌کنند. صفحه ۱۷۶ کتاب
با بیانی طنزآمیز، انسان گونه‌های زیستی را تا حدی به نیستی کشانیده که به‌نظر می‌رسد امروز فقط یک تلاش فوق بشری بتواند آن‌ها را نجات دهد. صفحه ۲۹۸ کتاب
فرضیه جایگزینی می‌گوید انسان‌های نوین از جمعیت کوچکی ریشه گرفته‌اند که در حدود ۲۰۰ هزار سال پیش در آفریقا زندگی می‌کرده‌اند و بعد زیرمجموعه کوچک‌تری از آن به خاورمیانه مهاجرت کرد و از آن‌جا به‌تدریج زیرمجموعه‌های بیشتری به شمال غربی اروپا و غرب در آسیا رانده شدند و تمام راه را تا شرق در استرالیا طی کردند هنگامی‌ که انسان‌های نوین طی مهاجرت خود به شمال و شرق با نئاندرتال‌ها و نیز با به‌اصطلاح انسان‌های کهن دیگر روبه‌رو می‌شدند که از قبل در آن مناطق زندگی می‌کرده‌اند، خود را «جایگزین» آن‌ها می‌کردند، که بهتر است بگوییم آن‌ها را به انقراض می‌کشاندند. صفحات ۳۲۹-۳۳۰ کتاب
آیا آگاهی از این‌که شیوه زندگی ما چگونه زندگی گونه‌های دیگر را به خطر می‌اندازد، نباید ما را بر آن دارد تا برای حفاظت از آن‌ها اقدام کنیم؟ آیا تلاش برای فکر کردن به آینده و آگاهی از خطرات پیش رو به ما کمک می‌کند تا مسیر را عوض کنیم و از خطرات اجتناب کنیم؟ انسان‌ها قطعا می‌توانند مخرب و کوته‌بین باشند یا این‌که خودخواهی را کنار بگذارند و آینده‌نگر باشند. بارها و بارها انسان‌ها نشان داده‌اند که می‌توانند، به قول ریچل کارسون، خود را در مشکلات موجودات دیگر سهیم بدانند و به آن‌ها توجه کنند و برای نجات آن‌ها ازخودگذشتگی کنند. آلفرد نیوتن کشتاری را تشریح کرد که در امتداد ساحل بریتانیایی رخ می‌داد. و این به تصویب لایحه حفاظت از پرندگان دریایی منجر شد. جان موئیر درباره تخریب کوهستان‌های کالیفرنیا نوشت، که به ایجاد پارک ملی یوسیمیتی انجامید. کتاب بهار خاموش، نوشته ریچل کارسون پرده از خطرات آفت‌کش‌ها برداشت و ظرف یک دهه استفاده از ددت در اکثر موارد ممنوع شد. (این امر که هنوز عقاب‌های برهنه در ایالات متحد وجود دارند و شمار آن‌ها بیشتر هم می‌شود، یکی از پیامدهای شادی‌آور چنین تحولی است) . صفحه ۳۵۰ کتاب
انقراض کنونی دلایل جدید خود را دارد. دلیل آن نه شهاب آسمانی است و نه فوران گسترده آتشفشانی، بلکه به قول والتر آلوارز: «وجود یک‌گونه‌ی باریک اندام است.» ما اکنون شاهد انقراض گسترده‌ای هستیم که به دست انسان صورت می‌گیرد. صفحه ۳۵۵ کتاب
Profile Image for Nataliya Yaneva.
165 reviews330 followers
January 13, 2021
Не е тайна за никого, че човеците са видът, който в най-голяма степен е размествал фигурите по дъската на планетата Земя и е взимал най-много пионки (и не само) под формата на други видове. Природни ресурси, които преди са се смятали за практически неизчерпаеми, днес са преминали в графата „ако не направим нещо различно скоро , спукана ни е работата“. Преди около петдесетина години водата е била такъв ресурс. Тогава населението на Земята е било по-малко от половината на днешното. За разлика от останалите видове, хората нямат естествени врагове, поради което и човешката популация не се поддържа в контролируеми граници. А както сме доказвали неведнъж и то нерядко в грандиозни отрицателни мащаби, бъдем ли оставени да правим каквото си искаме, ставаме неудържима стихия.

В „Шестото измиране“ има един основен лайтмотив, фонов за всички останали заключения, а именно – дори най-големите изследователски умове бавно и мъчително достигат до изводите за човешкото влияние върху флората и фауната и то често когато вече е твърде късно. Навред Homo Sapiens „преуспява екстравагантно за сметка на другите видове“. Като вид, който се гордее с това, че мисли, следователно съществува, в течение на иначе кратката си история сме извършвали чутовни плиткоумия от жестокост и липса на проницателност (немалко от тях върху други хора, но това е съвсем друга тема). Почти ревнах на няколко места из книгата, четейки за обърналите нагоре кореми трупчета на златни жаби в Панама, изпопадалите на купчини мъртви прилепи в пещери в САЩ или за безкрилата гагарка, официално изтребена в средата на 19-ти век от група исландци.

„Ако идвате за техните пера, не си давате труда да ги трепете, а хващате някой пингвин и оскубвате най-хубавата перушина. След това го пускате да плава във водата, наполовина гол и с разкъсана кожа, да си умре сам.“
„Взимате с вас котел, в който слагате един-два пингвина, палите под него огън, накладен изцяло от самите нещастни пингвини. Телата им, понеже са мазни, бърже подхранват пламъка.“
[Наскоро видях на живо препарирана безкрила гагарка в музея „Келвингроув“ в Глазгоу. Стана ми изключително тъжно, защото знаех историята на последните два екземпляра от вида и не гледах просто едно умряло животно с табела до него.]

Хората, като всички хищници, ядат животни, но като никои други същества използват и техни части като модни аксесоари, за целите на парфюмерийната индустрия, за украса и дори като наркотик („Роговете о�� носорог, които са направени от кератин… през последните години стават дори още по-търсени като дрога за богаташи: в клубовете в Югоизточна Азия шмъркат рог като кокаин“). Има и разни относително полезни начини да се използват животински продукти, например артикули от кожи, които иначе биха били изхвърлени от кланици или пък пайовете от катерица, които веднъж Джейми Оливър показа, че прави от катерици, умъртвявани с цел контрол на застрашително нарастващите им популации. В никакъв случай не съм образцов природозащитник, като повечето хора имам кожени обувки и други неща, които малко или много ме превръщат в идеалния консуматор, както много членове на нашето общество са научени от малки. Все пак се опитвам, когато попадна на подобно четиво, да си изваждам главата от задника по теми, важни за всички ни, без оглед къде живеем и колко не ни пука за наследството, което ще оставим. Защото, да, все повече стои въпросът какво и дали ще оставим нещо след себе си.

Хората от векове сериозно размесват световната биота и в някои моменти се получава нещо като руска рулетка в рамките на една Нова Пангея. От научни открития става ясно, че в гените си носим между 1% и 4% неандерталска ДНК, което, в кръга на шегата, може да обясни част от видовите ни недомислици. Че сме започнали изключително големи и необратими процеси, е ясно, важно е непрестанно да се питаме и осведомяваме за последиците от тях, защото „мрачната нощ на душата“ на св. Йоан Кръстни може да придобие съвсем ново значение и да настъпи доста по-скоро, отколкото си мислим.

„Homo Sapiens може не само да бъде причинител на Шестото измиране, но рискува да стане и една от жертвите му.“

В заключение: Keep up the good work.
Ike Interviews God
Profile Image for Metodi Markov.
1,342 reviews317 followers
July 11, 2022
Притеснително интересна книга!

Отдавна не бях чел научно-популярна литература и тази ми дойде много добре. Научих доста неща и не ми е толкова спокойно, както до преди това.

Подробно е разгледано влиянието на човека върху околната среда, унищожаването и преместването на видове и често катастрофалните последици от това.

Дадени са много детайли за глобалното затопляне и влиянието му върху световния океан и обитателите му, както и за подкиселяването, ко��то е също пряк резултат и което се оказва също много опасно. Доста по-гадно е, отколкото звучи...

Книгата е написана оптимистично и аз съм съгласен, че хората никога не са живели съвсем в хармония с природата, но трябва вече да сме достатъчно съзрели, за да се опитаме да ограничим поне част от въздействието си върху планетата. Друг дом ние нямаме...

И е видно - епохата на антропоцена продължава и от нас зависи как ще завърши - с някакво, може би крехко равновесие или с поредното, шесто масово измиране на видове. Което, апропо вече е факт за много живот��и и растения. Не е нереалистично да се мисли, че и ние ще ги последваме.

Кораловите рифове ще са вероятно първата голяма екосистема унищожена през антропоцена! Това вече е факт за части от Големия бариерен риф край Австралия, приятели ходиха да се гмуркат там и споделиха, че гледката на мъртвия риф е нещо ужасяващо...


"Работата върви добре, но изглежда, иде краят на света."

P.S. Заслужена награда "Пулицър" за Елизабет Колбърт!
Profile Image for Arman.
284 reviews199 followers
August 10, 2020
همه چیز از "کوويه" شروع شد. او بعد از مطالعه استخوان های یک جانور آمریکایی، مدعی شد که در گذشته های دور، جانوراني زندگی می کردند که به ناگاه منقرض شدند.
در واقع کوويه با ابداع کلمه "انقراض"، به تاریخ طبیعی ای که امروز می شناسیم، شکل داد.
البته ناگهانی بودن این انقراض ها همواره مورد مناقشه بوده و مخالفانی مانند داروین داشته است. اگرچه همان زمان هم گونه هایی از جانوران به خاطر شکار شدن توسط انسان در آستانه انقراض قرار داشتند، اما تصور انقلاباتی زمین شناختی که موجب انقراض گروهی جانوران شود، مشکل بود.
اما در نیمه دوم قرن بیستم بود که دانشمندان به شواهدی مبنی بر تلاطم هایی در سرتاسر زمین و بروز انقراض هایی گسترده و ناگهانی دست پیدا کردند. به مرور تعداد این انقلاب های زمین شناختی، به عدد 5 رسید.

الیزابت کلبرت در هر فصل به یک نمونه از جاندارانی که در هر کدام از این انقلاب ها منقرض شدند و عوامل بروز آن ها پرداخته است.
وی بطور موازی، به مرور تاریخچه ی مطرح شدن مفهوم انقراض نیز می پردازد و فرایند کشف این انقراض های گسترده ی پنجگانه را بازگو می کند.

موضوعی دیگر که در سرتاسر صفحات کتاب دنبال می شود، این است بسیاری از که گونه های زنده ی امروزین در آستانه انقراض قرار گرفته اند.
به نظر نویسنده اکثر این انقراض ها به خاطر شرایطی ست که انسان (هوموساپينس) بر زمین مسلط کرده است. انسان چنان شرایط زمین را تغییر داده است که عملا بسیاری از گونه ها از مسابقه ی بقا و سازگاری با شرایط جدید باز مانده اند و منقرض شده یا در آستانه انقراض قرار گرفته اند.

بسیاری از دانشمندان بر این اعتقادند که زمین و گونه های ساکن در آن، در آستانه ی ششمين انقراض گسترده قرار داریم. آنچه هنوز در هاله ای از ابهام قرار گرفته، این است که آیا انسان توان جان سالم به در بردن از این انقراض را دارد، یا اینکه خود انسان نيز قربانی انقلابی می شود که جرقه اش را خودش زده است.

پ ن: از متن ویراست نشده، غلط های تایپی متعدد و استعمال معادل هایی ناآشنا برای اصطلاحات زیست شناسی و زمین شناسی، مشخص است که نشر ثالث در نظر(طمع) داشته است که با این کتاب، تجربه ی موفق "انسان خردمند"(نشر نو) را با همان مترجم و کتاب علمی پرفروش دیگری تکرار کند.

پ ن ۲: کتاب خانم کلبرت، روایتی جاندار و سرزنده و خواندنی در داستان انقراض گستردهذي گونه هاست... به همه دوستانی که حتي آشنایی/علاقه ی اندکی با/به زیست شناسی دارند، این کتاب فوق العاده را پیشنهاد می کنم.
Profile Image for Ushashi.
157 reviews77 followers
March 24, 2022
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 today, were made and treated by the scientific world then is fascinating. I am also awed by the extent of effort that Kolbert put into her research by taking part in so many expeditions over the years. The structure of focusing on specific flora or fauna for each chapter as examples of how the 'sixth extinction' is at play works very well. It is a scary book if you really assimilate what's happening in the world, how we are wiping out different species from the earth every day. It will become a nightmare once it becomes clear that eventually and inevitably humans will join the parade of extinct species if we continue at this rate. This book should be made into mandatory reading in schools. It might help in making a generation that is universally more conscious about the environment before we run out of time.
Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews336 followers
February 21, 2016
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 reckless way we use modern industry and technology.

The increase in world population combined with our penchant to explore and settle new territories is one cause. We not only pose a direct threat as super-efficient hunters, habitat disruptors and destroyers; but we bring along a myriad of pests from rats to fleas to fungi to viruses. In the age of jet planes filling the skies and cargo ships filling the sea lanes, just about any organism can end up anywhere. The author describes this as the new Pangaea. Far flung lands might as well be directly connected as we spread invasive species to every corner of the globe. So on top of the many species we have hunted to extinction from the great auk in Iceland to the moa in New Zealand; we have carried in snakes and rats that have eliminated everything from bird populations in Guam to palm trees on Easter Island and more recently spread fungi that have decimated amphibians and bats, to list just a few examples. Within this new Pangaea humanity’s expansion has fragmented wild and natural areas into smaller and smaller enclaves. Species die off as these eco-islands become too small to support the vibrant diversity that existed before.

Compounding the problem is climate change. Kolbert profiles past extinctions in which climate was a factor, but there is a major difference in the current situation – the rate of change. Our climate is changing in decades, not thousands of years giving species little time to adapt. Some species can change latitude or elevation but many are trapped in their remaining “island” habitats, unable to migrate from patches of forest or isolated sanctuaries. Climate change puts ocean life at risk as well. As the burning of fossil fuels loads up our atmosphere with carbon much of it ends up in the sea. Again the speed with which this is happening is the telling factor. The extreme rate of change affords sea creatures little time to adjust to increased ocean acidification and resultant decreased pH and calcium saturation levels. While devastating to calcifiers such as coral this change could favor organisms which pump sulfur into the atmosphere.

Then there is the problem of chain reactions. Flora and fauna are intricately interdependent, as one vulnerable species is eliminated; many others go with it. Kolbert points out that a wide variety of species will perish as the coral reefs die out. Similarly the elimination of rainforests means the highly diversified ecosystems they support will fail. Every species lost puts another in a precarious position. And of course we too are a part of this chain of life. Kolbert has done a superb job of presenting this crisis in a way that has resonated with many. Hopefully it will help more of us to realize how serious our situation is before it is too late.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,066 reviews239 followers
August 3, 2020
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 others on the verge of being wiped out. She analyzes the reasons behind the extinctions, many of which can be traced to the actions of humans.

This book covers a wide breadth of scientific disciplines, such as paleontology, anthropology, meteorology, geology, oceanography, and ecology. In addition to the expected analysis of climate change and deforestation, she covers the acidification of the oceans (something I had not heard before). Each chapter focuses on a different extinct or endangered species. I found myself rapidly turning to pages to learn more.

Highlights include the decline of the Neanderthal, ravages of invasive species, decreasing biodiversity, and perilous position of large mammals such as elephants, bears, and the big cats. It combines elements of scientific explanation, history, travelogue, and personal reflections. It is an intelligent and lively commentary that illuminates current issues and provides a warning.

It requires a keen interest in science and history, and if you are so inclined, this book is riveting. The historic ages of the earth are explained and what is known about the five previous extinctions. The history of scientific thought is traced, including Darwin’s (and Lyell’s and Wallace’s) theories and subsequent elaborations. It is a treasure trove of information and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Well, as much as one can “enjoy” a book about extinction.
Profile Image for Trish.
2,016 reviews3,436 followers
March 13, 2019
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 only a small step from this incredible man's biography (who's 250th birthday we celebrate on 14 September incidentally) to books about the Big Five, the five mass extinctions that have shaped our planet and the 6th that we might be living in right now.

While yesterday's book wasn't very gripping, this one was wonderful. Elizabeth Kolbert introduces us to a few extinct or almost extinct animals:
The Golden Frog (extinct in the wild)

as well as the Great Auk (extinct)

The former was attacked by a fungus (much like the bats she later introduced/presented). Some biologists saw what was happening (at first not knowing what killed off the amphibians) and saved as many as they could find, taking them to a hotel (no, I'm not kidding) where they built a habitat in several rooms.
The latter was killed off by fishermen and for the clothing industry as it was fashionable to wear their feathers in times past. Much like with shark finning nowadays, people plucked the birds, leaving them naked and with partially ripped-off skin in the cold to die horribly. Either we humans therefore caused their extinction directly or the population was decimated to a point where they could no longer survive some other factor.

The author then also describes older epochs where dinosaurs and other creatures roamed and ruled on Earth.
She tells about research, how we came up with considering extra-terrestrial factors such as meteor strikes for an extinction event, digging up fossils, how original theories were established, disbelieved, proven or disproven, amended etc.

And we follow her to various places around the globe to witness nature's might and beauty as well as its destruction.
Like when she swims and dives through various reefs (the Great Barrier Reef amongst others), thus showing us sharks and fish, corals and the rest of the incredible diversity these "jungles of the sea" have to offer.
Or when she hikes through the Amazonian rain forest (reserve 12-0-2).
Or when she crawls through caves in the US in the endeavor to count the last remaining bats that have not yet been killed by the afore-mentioned fungus (white-nose).

She's thus also telling the reader about invasive species either introduced deliberately (like the famous poisonous toad in Australia or a certain snail on Hawaii) or by accident via ships and planes (like a snake on Guam or the Japanese bark fungus that has killed off the American chestnut).
What I didn't know and learned here, for example, was that almost all grass in the US is NOT native. Like one third(!) of all plants (dandelions for example) or earthworms, it arrived from Europe. It's called the Columbus Exchange. (There are no American earthworms whatsoever, in fact, since they all died out during the last ice age.) Basically, humans are running plate tectonics backwards, breaking the evolutionary chain by bringing American species to Africa, African ones to Europe, European ones to Antarctica and so on. This "going back to what it was like when there was still the super-continent Pangea" is dangerous however as it means the elimination of species variety.

Moreover, through the author's travels we meet a number of paleontologists, geologists, ecologists and biologists explaining these phenomena and what they mean (now and in the future).

Thus, she gives a 360° view on the subject, even including etymological and historical details that were fascinating to read about (like where the word "science" came from, who coined it and when - since it had a direct influence on the research itself). Or what contribution the different naturalists and explorers (such as James Cook, too) made that still influence our understanding of nature today.

Monocultures, ocean acidification, poaching, CO2-outputs, ... there is more than enough proof for the devastating effects we humans have already had in addition to natural factors and this book provides a very nice summary / overview with enough examples from around the world.

The writing style is fluent and coherent and the combination of the topics to give a holistic view before the tragic conclusion was suspenseful (yes, although it is non-fiction) and very well done. By the way, she also mentions efforts that give hope seeing as how far we've come and what we've done already to protect certain species and get them back from the brink. We could at least prevent ultimate disaster if only we got our collective butt in gear and actively changed the world (for the better this time).

Naturally, this is more than a science book. It's also a cautionary tale. It's bringing context to what we've done to the world so far and what we'll probably continue doing to it and what the outcome will likely be. It therefore already also provides the answer for an alternative.
The easily accessible writing might thus be the perfect way of conveying accurate scientific details even to laymen (who are usually rather reluctant to pick up such a book). A very important book that I wish more people would read.
Profile Image for Peiman.
353 reviews81 followers
August 28, 2023
انقراض ششم در چند فصل با ارائه‌ی گزارش مشاهدات و توضیح فرضیه‌هایی از زیست‌شناسان از گذشته‌ی زمین و موجودات روی زمین به بررسی نحوه‌ی امکان انقراض گسترده‌ی بعدی پرداخته. بررسی گرمایش زمین و اسیدی شدن آب اقیانوس‌ها و انقراض نوعی قورباغه و خفاش و بررسی تاثیر تغییر اقلیم بر موجودات و ارائه‌ی نتایجی از آزمایشات بر استخوان‌های پیدا شده از نئاندرتال‌ها از نمونه گزارشات نویسنده‌ست. به عنوان یک گزارش مشاهدات جالبه اما زیاد به فرضیه‌ها نمیشه وزن داد، انسان‌ها چیز زیادی از گذشته نمیدونند و فقط با تعداد محدودی و معدودی مشاهده فرضیه‌هایی مطرح کرده‌اند که شاید با چند مشاهده‌ی دیگه فرضیه‌ی بعدی مطرح بشه.ه
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