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Group Reads > December 2015: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

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message 1: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
Welcome to Our New Group Read:
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

This book won this year's Pulitzer Prize. We shouldn't end the year without reading it.

Please tell us why this book matters and what we should do to prevent the sixth extinction.

message 2: by Sharman (new)

Sharman Russell (sharmanaptrussell) | 14 comments I look forward to reading this!

message 3: by Correen (new)

Correen (corrmorr) | 11 comments I have read the book and look forward to reading comments. I hope readers will comment as they read as we cannot spoil reader's experience with our comments even if they have not read that portion. I liked the author's analysis of corporate programs to improve climactic conditions. She evaluated the programs rather than the overall performance of the corporations.

message 4: by Bette (new)

Bette | 17 comments I just finished The Sixth Extinction and enjoyed it immensely. Frankly, I think it ought to be more scary than it is. Humans are changing the world faster than the living things on this earth can adapt...that ought to be scary, but somehow the author leaves me with the sense that it's an "interesting experiment" instead. I"m not sure if that's comforting, or even if it ought to be comforting.
I particularly enjoyed the early part of the book where she discussed Wallace and Darwin, etc. I've read a lot about Wallace and Darwin and yet, Kolbert managed to leave me feeling that I was reading about them for the first time. In some way, what she had to say seemed "fresh" - much to my amazement.
Just the same, when one reads "it's been calculated that the group's [amphibians] extinction rate could be as much as 45,000 times higher than the background rate" - then shouldn't one ought to realize things are not as we want the to be...and maybe we ought to be taking all of this much more seriously than we are. Yes I know all the leaders are in Paris working this on the climate change issues this minute, but it seems to be 75 years too late.
I particularly liked Kolbert's description of "paradigm shifts" - i.e., how data that does not fit the commonly accepted assumptions either are discounted or explained away for as long as possible. (Ah, Denial is everywhere!). : )
Or how about this: "a hundred million years or so, a stratigrapher will be able to tell that something extraordinary happened at the moment in time that counts for us ....all that we consider to be the great works of man--the sculptures, 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.

message 5: by Correen (new)

Correen (corrmorr) | 11 comments The part about the amphibians gave me chills. I thought she contained herself in her writing so she would not lose her audience.

message 6: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
I have a difficult time discussing a book before I finish reading.
We can have several days to lessen the spoiler effect. Good thing this isn't a fiction :).

The last sentence gave me chills.

message 7: by Brian (new)

Brian Harvey | 8 comments In my opinion, one can never get enough of Wallace and Darwin. So much more compelling a human story than Watson and Crick. If Kolbert can make the story seem fresh, I'm looking forward to that.

message 8: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
It's very enjoyable. It reminds me of how much I love the Old World. The sad part is that this book is a beautiful elegy of life as it has been, and will be?

It's a page turner.

message 9: by Yuen (new)

Yuen | 2 comments I just finished the first two chapters. They were very interesting especially the Panamanian golden frog. Looking forward to reading more.

message 10: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
They are beautiful, aren't they?
I'm halfway through the book.

message 11: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
Turns out I do have a piece of fossil rock in my home. I have a curious looking stone from The Grand Canyon. It looks like a fossil of ammonites.

message 12: by Susan (new)

Susan | 4 comments I'm reading (and partly listening to) the book in a bit of a random order because of some problems with the audio file :) The amphibians definitely made quite an impression on me.
I'm a bit skeptical about the Neanderthal chapter though. The idea that we wiped out the Neanderthals is increasingly difficult to sustain, and it seems that it was mostly the climatic conditions and some interbreeding that caused the disappearance of Neanderthals.
Interesting book, still about 3 chapters to go!

message 13: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
Oh yes, the Neanderthal extinction hypotheses. Haven't been in that chapter. What is her stance? Which hypothesis does she support?

message 14: by Susan (new)

Susan | 4 comments She mostly talks about Paabo Svante and his 'leaky replacement' theory. Replacement with a bit of interbreeding. In line with the rest of the book she uses Neanderthals as yet another example of a species we wiped out.

message 15: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
Was there any evidence?

message 16: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
What do you think, Elentarri?

message 17: by Elentarri (last edited Dec 09, 2015 02:06AM) (new)

Elentarri Grrrrr - the internet ate my reply!!! :(

Re: Neanderthals

Unless you build a time machine we will probably never know for sure. Neanderthals seem to have had a small population to start with. Their demise is probably a combination of factors such as: less/smaller community networking in troubled times; less adaptable to changing environment, competition for food (maybe they didn't like vegetable?)/resources when humans pitched up; change in climate (did a changing climate open up Europe and the Middle-East for human colonisation?); diseases (we caught some from them, they caught some from us); or just simply being out bred and mixed with the new human migrants like what is happening in Europe today and what happened in the Middle-East a thousand years ago and several times during history.

Found this for those interested:

Book -

I thought the book was poorly written. Each chapter would have made an interesting magazine article but as a cohesive book it failed. The book was too repetitive, no enough proper science, too many personal travelogue bits, too superficial (author doesn't appear to have an understanding of the subject matter, just regurgitates what others tell her) and no proper argument.

I'm still not sure what the purpose of the book was?
Raising awareness? Well - she discusses nothing new, especially with all the global warning hype lately.
Providing or discussion solutions to the problem? Nope - she gives us nothing, but basically says we are screwed and can't do anything about the problem.
Convincing her readers that humans are evil and should toss themselves off the nearest cliff? - maybe.

The impression I get from this book is that the author thinks every species on this planet is a rock that just sits there waiting for humans to do something to it. Everything is interconnected. Humans are part of the environment. The environment affects us too.

Try this book if you want a survey of how some animals deal with humans: Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle

This one for how microbes deal with humans: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

And this one for less doom and gloom:
Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators

If you are trying to convince people to "save the planet", try this book: What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?: How Money Really Does Grow on Trees

message 18: by Brian (new)

Brian Harvey | 8 comments Agreed about Spillover - Quammen gets deeper than Kolbert, and does a wonderful job of building on a central theme. And yes, at least some of those chapters in her book were likely magazine pieces (one of which I remember reading). Regarding neanderthal theory, we should remember that Kolbert is a generalist and shouldn't be faulted for making what she considers a best call based on what she reads and who she talks to. Authors like the writers of the group's last book (on quantum biology), or Dawkins, say, can claim to be actual practitioners of at least some part of what they are writing about. It makes a difference.

message 19: by Katherine (Kat) (new)

Katherine (Kat) Nagel (katnagel) | 21 comments Mod
I'm about halfway through, but I recognize several chapters as articles I've already read (SciAm, maybe? or New Yorker?). The book would have benefited from better transitions that tied everything into a cohesive whole. That being said, I think there is a benefit in presenting all of the extinctions side by side, especially for people who haven't studied the science involved. I've given it to a couple of friends.

message 20: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
Reading further into the book, I find myself agreeing with you. This is a very good book in the sense that it shows you the beauty of this earth of ours. I would still recommend it to everybody.

For science-minded people like us, this book is far from satisfying. Notwithstanding the sufficient descriptions of the flora and the fauna, I prefer the narrations to have more biochemistry contents.

message 21: by Ray (new)

Ray Zimmerman The part about amphibian extinction sounded familiar. I read an article in Smithsonian with a similar message in 1993. Here is more on Amphibian Extinction and Preservation from our National Zoo (US).

message 22: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
Thanks, Ray. So not just the frogs then.

message 23: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
This was one of the best books I've read. And we surely hope that it can deliver its purpose: to change people.

Our next book deals with this:
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

Pls join the discussion here:

I also would like to know what members think about our new policy regarding group reads here:

message 24: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Mueller | 8 comments I just wantted to say about The Sixth Extinction. I know it wasn't as scientific as I know this group would have liked but I think reading this book made me give it to other people that aren't as science minded. I gave my book to my twin brother and will pass it on to others in order to let people know that WE as humans are causing irreparable damage to our planet. Hopefully they all read it.

message 25: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
Very true, Michelle. We should also encourage the government to take these issues very, very seriously.

Is anyone here with the government? Or involved in a project that includes the government?

message 26: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
I'd also like a book that discusses the feasibility of living on other planets.

These are urgent matters, as urgent as the survival of the other species.

message 27: by Brian (new)

Brian Harvey | 8 comments Regarding "Is anyone here with government?" I have done many contracts with government on endangered species (fish), although I am not a government employee. Over the years, I've seen an increase of attention to biodiversity, and that usually translates into legislation. This legislation has a lot of good things going for it but can lead to an enormous amount of "box ticking" effort and cost. For example, if a species gets listed as threatened or endangered, this means a number of reports have to be done (boxes ticked). This process can be very inefficient, especially when we have terribly inadequate knowledge of the real status of the species (for example, population estimates for many species are just educated guesses, and a great deal of "recovery planning" is based on target population numbers for generic species rather than the one actually at risk). This isn't anybody's fault - we just don't know the real numbers. A book like Kolbert's has to reflect these realities - as well as the fact that in many countries the endangered species legislation can be over-ridden by government if protection of the species is judged to be bad for the economy.

message 28: by Andreas (new)

Andreas Laurencius (andreaslaurencius) | 204 comments Mod
I stumbled upon some difficulties regarding a solution to this.
Brian, could you provide us with a recommendation or two?

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