Riku Sayuj's Reviews > The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
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bookshelves: ecology, pop-eco, history, science-evolution


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.
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Reading Progress

April 29, 2014 – Started Reading
April 29, 2014 – Shelved
April 30, 2014 –
page 230
68.45% "Virtually every species that’s around today can be said to be cold-adapted, including humans. All made it through the last ice age. \n \n Either they or their very close relatives also made it through the ice age before that, and the one before that, and so on going back two and a half million years."
May 1, 2014 – Shelved as: ecology
May 1, 2014 – Shelved as: pop-eco
May 1, 2014 – Shelved as: history
May 1, 2014 – Shelved as: science-evolution
May 2, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 50 (50 new)

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message 1: by Ted (new)

Ted Absolutely wonderful review, Riku. Will be bookmarked soon.

Don't know if you've been able to catch Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos, but last week he talked about the sixth extinction. He was very outspoken in his closing comments, almost as if talking from a script I would have written. Since there are still four weeks left I can't imagine how he's going to wind the whole thing up. I so hope a lot of people are watching.


message 2: by Garima (new)

Garima Wonderful review, Riku. I'm sufficiently depressed now though it's not helpful in any way.


Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "Absolutely wonderful review, Riku. Will be bookmarked soon.

Don't know if you've been able to catch Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos, but last week he talked about the sixth extinction. He was very ou..."


Thanks, Ted!

I have not been catching Cosmos regularly.. I have watched only 3 till now, I think. There was some controversy recently with Tyson dismissing philosophy and big questions by saying “I don’t have time for that.” -- I read an article arguing that that is a bad message to send to young scientists.

I am sure he must be quoted out of context, but for a while a I stopped being a fan. I am sure a show would cure me.


message 4: by Riku (last edited May 09, 2014 01:49AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Garima wrote: "Wonderful review, Riku. I'm sufficiently depressed now though it's not helpful in any way."

Thanks, Garima.

It is also about changing attitudes... if more people got depressed about the luxury of the anthropocene, it will stop being 'aspirational' -- that is the best way to affect the market economy, by getting people to value things in a more informed way.

I know you meant well, but individuals matter a whole lot more than individuals think and you being concerned means a lot to me.


message 5: by Garima (new)

Garima Riku wrote: "individuals matter a whole lot more than individuals think..."

I couldn't agree more :)


message 6: by Caroline (last edited May 09, 2014 03:41AM) (new) - added it

Caroline Absolutely brilliant review!!! This is already on my t-r lists. I must move it up the pile.

How fascinating to learn about Kuhn's work, and the mechanisms behind “paradigm shifts”. I had not heard about that before, but it makes complete sense.

Loved the last paragraph....


Riku Sayuj Elham wrote: "I have to shift my reads from "Dystopia" to "Environment". Thanks for this enlightening review!"

Thanks, Elham. I am not sure what you meant by that 'shift'...


Riku Sayuj Caroline wrote: "Absolutely brilliant review!!! This is already on my t-r lists. I must move it up the pile.

How fascinating to learn about Kuhn's work, and the mechanisms behind “paradigm shifts”. I had ..."


Thanks, Caroline. Do notice the star rating though :) The message was important, so was the content, but the delivery was not always up to the mark.


Riku Sayuj Elham wrote: "Riku wrote: "Elham wrote: "I have to shift my reads from "Dystopia" to "Environment". Thanks for this enlightening review!"

Thanks, Elham. I am not sure what you meant by that 'shift'..."

I just ..."


Ted has a wonderful compilation of books on the topic -- https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/...

You might find something to your tastes there.

This might not be a good place to start reading... Ideally Silent Spring should be, but that is a bit dated now - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


Michael I very much enjoyed your review.....well written. I have a review of this book also, but with a slightly different conclusion. The message that came through for me was that we....humanity, was the sixth extinction. A gentleman, Kent, commented in my review that I was wrong in this conclusion. Perhaps so. Anyway, I did enjoy your review and perhaps I will revisit the book that is still in my Kindle to see if I need to reconsider my original conclusion...Michael


message 11: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Michael wrote: "I very much enjoyed your review.....well written. I have a review of this book also, but with a slightly different conclusion. The message that came through for me was that we....humanity, was th..."

We are definitely the agents, but we might well be the victims too.


message 12: by Ted (last edited May 09, 2014 11:17PM) (new)

Ted Humans are probably too intelligent and adaptable to become absolutely extinct for any reason related to climate change or ecological destruction, or even from the worst pandemic you can think of. From billions to millions, perhaps. And human civilization, as we know it today, perhaps, maybe even likely. Just my opinion, though informed by my wife's knowledge of disease and genetics. ( Bookmarked - Science )


message 13: by Riku (last edited May 11, 2014 10:48AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "Humans are probably too intelligent and adaptable to become absolutely extinct for any reason related to climate change or ecological destruction, or even from the worst pandemic you can think of. ..."

I am not sure about how to class your comment... In the long term, without the 'ecological services', there is no way we can pick up and get back on feet once knocked down from the perch of civilization.

Whatever history we have (which might give us a sense of security) is based on human beings having huge natural advantages due to our mobility and encountering vast bounties... those things will not be available anymore. And even if we hold on for a while, eventually diseases, etc. will wipe us out.

This is because our survival depends on each other -- we are not really vey adaptable as individual and we have no fall-back habitats where we can be safe by default. And society requires enough resources to keep it together. In my opinion, a post-human world might recover but will have more locally-adapted species living in small niches.

The era of spread-over-the-globe species might well be over for a very long time. Humans might have proved that that is a evolutionary dead-end for the planet.


message 14: by Ted (new)

Ted Riku wrote: "Ted wrote: "Humans are probably too intelligent and adaptable to become absolutely extinct for any reason related to climate change or ecological destruction, or even from the worst pandemic you ca..."

I said "absolutely extinct". No argument that humans could be reduced by enormous numbers for the reasons you mentioned. But those reasons would not lead to the dying of every human being on the planet. Cold comfort of course. I'm being picky.

I don't consider myself to be disagreeing with anything you have said except for that minor point. I'm certain we are together on all this stuff.


message 15: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "Riku wrote: "Ted wrote: "Humans are probably too intelligent and adaptable to become absolutely extinct for any reason related to climate change or ecological destruction, or even from the worst pa..."

I get it. My point is that human survival might well be dependent on a certain critical mass and on some level of geographical dispersion. Without that chance, if not nature, (not to mention minor warfare) will eventually wipe us out... every human being.:) No, I am not arguing with you on his minor point... just pointing out that small bands of humans might not be able to survive thousands of years in a dilapidated planet which cant give them easy pickings. They are bound to die out.


message 16: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Any patch of earth might be able to support only 2-3 individuals of a species, and only those species that are solitary and adapted to individual survival might eke out a living.

A species like humans that depend on population density as its only real weapon (we have meagre indiv intelligences, it is collective intelligence that makes us important - which depends on pop density) might not be feasible in a post-human, post-sixth-extinction world. Just conjectures, of course. Have to pretend to be taking my own arguments seriously to present them ! :)


Lissa Judd My god! What a review! I might stop reading books and just read what you have to say.


message 18: by Ted (new)

Ted Riku wrote: "Any patch of earth might be able to support only 2-3 individuals of a species, and only those species that are solitary and adapted to individual survival might eke out a living.

A species like h..."


I recalled seeing this story about an isolated Russian family many months ago, and thought I would leave the link here.

The arguments you present apply not to human beings as a species, but to human beings living in a modern setting, ie, as a "civilization". Yes, civilization is threatened, and that is entirely bad enough to frame an alarm. One needn't go off the deep end and claim that there might be no humans alive on earth. That is just almost vanishingly unlikely.


message 19: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "Riku wrote: "Any patch of earth might be able to support only 2-3 individuals of a species, and only those species that are solitary and adapted to individual survival might eke out a living.

A s..."


You might be right. I just don't see human beings as a particularly resilient species. We need too many things just right to form even small societies and those things might vanish all too fast. I am not saying this purely to frame an alarm, there is no reason to imagine that as you said. It is bad enough as it is.

This is a tough debate to call since we have no real reference to how an intelligent social species might adapt to a degraded environment. Even the desert civilizations do not provide a reference point since they were dependent on the bounty of nature to survive, even in almost self-created degraded environments...

Thanks for that wonderful link, and I can see why you might think that a species which can produce individuals like that can survive almost anything. It is just that I am talking of tens of thousands of years timeframe here. And I cannot see us hanging on for so long without civilization or at least society.

I am sorry I am dragging this out! It is at best a nice plot for a sci-fi story.


message 20: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Lissa wrote: "My god! What a review! I might stop reading books and just read what you have to say."

Thank you so much, Lissa! I am so glad that you find my reviews useful enough to even say that in jest! :)


message 21: by Ted (new)

Ted Riku wrote: "Ted wrote: "Riku wrote: "Any patch of earth might be able to support only 2-3 individuals of a species, and only those species that are solitary and adapted to individual survival might eke out a l..."

I had no idea you were talking about that sort of time frame.

By the way, the article on Types of Capital is ready, I hope it might be of some use. See here.


message 22: by Meena (new)

Meena Marvelous review, Riku though I'm slightly discouraged. I was rather looking forward to reading this.


message 23: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Meenakshi wrote: "Marvelous review, Riku though I'm slightly discouraged. I was rather looking forward to reading this."

Thanks. It is an important book to read.


message 24: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj A General Call for Suggestions:

India's budget this year allocates 8500 kms of new highways.

While admitting the absolute necessity of roads for a developing country, how can we proceed in a more ecologically-oriented discussion on future planning?

Is it viable to argue for rails over roads (say rails for long distance transport and roads for last-mile-connectivity)?

Or do we have to just accept that the roads have keep growing and vast stretches of barren-land criss-crossing the country is just something to be accepted?

Any suggestions on how to direct such a debate towards something practicable would be appreciated guys.


message 25: by Ted (new)

Ted Riku wrote: "A General Call for Suggestions:

India's budget this year allocates 8500 kms of new highways.

While admitting the absolute necessity of roads for a developing country, how can we proceed in a mor..."


Rail is certainly the ideal way to go long distance, as you say. But the up front cost of rail may be higher than roads. The ideal place to try to get a handle on comparisons would be (I think) Europe, which has a great rail system and not so much of the high-speed super highways that the U.S. (and almost no other country) has. Another country that might serve (though closer to the U.S. trans system maybe) is Canada.


message 26: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "Riku wrote: "A General Call for Suggestions:

India's budget this year allocates 8500 kms of new highways.

While admitting the absolute necessity of roads for a developing country, how can we pro..."


Thanks, Ted. I will see if I can get my hands on some comparative work.


Vaidya Your comment on roads in India, reminded me of this article:
http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content...

Some food for thought there, to categorize roads based on impact and work from that.


message 28: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Vaidya wrote: "Your comment on roads in India, reminded me of this article:
http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content...

Some food for thought there, to categorize roads based on impact and w..."


Thanks. DTE is usually quite sensible.


message 29: by Carl (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carl Excellent review and discussion, thank you. I am currently reading this wonderful book.


Michael If the oceans grow and the coasts are flooded rather quickly, you'll see the coast dwellers scramble for a home inland. It will be like rats out of the sewers. There is a finite amount of land inland, and most of that is owned by someone. If there are millions of rats scurrying for a new home inland, there may be wars fought to keep property. It could get ugly.

I think I agree that it will not be an absolute extinction in the short term. There may come a period of time when life imitates art. We may be the walking dead for a few decades. Many years from now, and no one knows how many, the wind, and the water, and the flowing red hot lava will erode all of the monuments we have built to honor and remember others and ourselves.


message 31: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Michael wrote: "If the oceans grow and the coasts are flooded rather quickly, you'll see the coast dwellers scramble for a home inland. It will be like rats out of the sewers. There is a finite amount of land in..."

The SIxth Extinction is not us, not exactly. We are only the agent of change. We are an extinction-level event, if you will. :)


Michael If the next extinction is other living things, I think the odds are quite good that we enjoy eating most of them.


message 33: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Michael wrote: "If the next extinction is other living things, I think the odds are quite good that we enjoy eating most of them."

The amphibians on the menu, please? :)


Michael They may be the first to go, true enough. Many people are put off at the idea of eating snails until they have enjoyed Escargot. No doubt someone can prepare amphibians to make them tasty for dinner.


message 35: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Michael wrote: "They may be the first to go, true enough. Many people are put off at the idea of eating snails until they have enjoyed Escargot. No doubt someone can prepare amphibians to make them tasty for din..."

Cheers.


message 36: by Gregsamsa (last edited Jan 20, 2015 11:46AM) (new)

Gregsamsa Behold the mighty ammonite:




message 37: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Gregsamsa wrote: "Behold the mighty ammonite:

"


Delicious. Just, just, yummm!


message 38: by Riku (last edited Jan 21, 2015 06:57AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Nice to see Obama declaring Climate Change to be the greatest threat we face in the SOTU. Dare we still deny?


message 39: by Ted (new)

Ted Did you actually watch this Riku? If so, I'm amazed that you could. I guess this shows just how out-of-touch I am with internet technology.


message 40: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "Did you actually watch this Riku? If so, I'm amazed that you could. I guess this shows just how out-of-touch I am with internet technology."

I did. I got a streaming link of the live telecast.

It is on youtube as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8LqG...


message 41: by Ted (new)

Ted Riku wrote: "Ted wrote: "Did you actually watch this Riku? If so, I'm amazed that you could. I guess this shows just how out-of-touch I am with internet technology."

I did. I got a streaming link of the live t..."


I'm glad he made that statement, though I'm skeptical that it will have much effect.


message 42: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "Riku wrote: "Ted wrote: "Did you actually watch this Riku? If so, I'm amazed that you could. I guess this shows just how out-of-touch I am with internet technology."

I did. I got a streaming link ..."


At the very least it will ignite some debate. it is a pity so few deign to actually talk about the biggest technological, social and moral issue of the day.


message 43: by Ted (new)

Ted Riku wrote: "Ted wrote: "Riku wrote: "Ted wrote: "Did you actually watch this Riku? If so, I'm amazed that you could. I guess this shows just how out-of-touch I am with internet technology."

I did. I got a str..."


I can't disagree with that. (view spoiler)


message 44: by kelley anderson (new)

kelley anderson You. Pretty. Sexy


message 45: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj kelley anderson wrote: "You. Pretty. Sexy"

why, thanks! a 'like' would have been nice too...


message 46: by Shayan (new) - added it


message 47: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Shayan wrote: "

"


Thanks :) Good to know.


message 48: by Ted (new)

Ted I reckon this is connected. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...

Elephants now nearing the brink, thanks to exploding demand for ivory in China, and entry into the poaching trade of both organized crime & terrorists. Makes one weep. 8(


message 49: by Riku (new) - rated it 3 stars

Riku Sayuj Ted wrote: "I reckon this is connected. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...

Elephants now nearing the brink, thanks to exploding demand for ivory in China, and entry into the poaching ..."


;'(


message 50: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King I love the review Riku and I've added the book. It sounds fascinating!


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