The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest work (published by Henry Holt & Co in February 2014) reads like a part travelogue, part introductory textbook. The Sixth Extinction is generally structured as a series of connected essays covering topics that show the ways man has decreased biodiversity on the planet. I enjoyed reading this book, and I was pleased to be able to discuss the ideas and stories from it with people who don’t share a scientific background. Though the idea of a “sixth extinction” is not new — there was, for example, a book on the subject published in 1995 (and it was also the name of a two part X-files episode!), Kolbert’s treatment of it is refreshing and adds to the scientific and popular discussions. Sidenote: You can get some more interesting, interactive information about the Holocene extinction here and here.

 

“If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so. It’s also a fascinating one . . . I try to convey both sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horror of it. My hope is that readers of this book will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.”                                                                      — Elizabeth Kolbert

The Good:

  • Scope: I would not characterize The Sixth Extinction as fundamentally a climate change book, though that is part of it – instead, I laud Kolbert for widening the scope a little and including effects of other human activities such as deforestation, hunting, and invasive species, as well as climate change externalities, such as the oft-overlooked ocean acidification.
  • Tone: What really distinguishes Kolbert’s book from others that I’ve read on similar topics is the tone she strikes with her writing. Her message is not preachy and does not blame or distance the reader. Instead, she takes a very “facts first” approach. She tells the stories with personality and warmth but does not become overly dire or dramatic in her discussion of their implications. She lets the facts speak for themselves.
  •  Essay-like format: In general, the chapter divisions work well. Each covers a different animal, and Kolbert investigates how that animal became threatened or already extinct. Many of the reasons have nothing to do with climate change, but of course man is the common denominator. One benefit for the casual reader? If a section proves dense or uninteresting (unlikely), you will be able to skip to the next with minimal loss of coherence.

The Less Good:

  • The title: As Kolbert points out, the fifth extinction wiped out the dinosaurs, changing the paradigm of life on earth and priming it for the rise of mammals. In fact, in general, after each of the five great extinctions, life has taken millions of years to recover, and when it does rebound, a new type of animal rises to dominance. A true sixth extinction would include the extinction of humans (or force us to adapt such that we scarcely resemble our forefathers), a point that Kolbert does not drive home. I may be the only one to have this specific quibble with the phrase “the sixth extinction” since it is quickly being adopted by scientists and journalists alike. There is evidence to support a severe decrease in biodiversity, but it might be over-hasty to call this most recent one a “mass extinction” (recall that even the recent extinction that wiped out mammoths, mastodons, North American camels, and other giant critters was not technically a mass extinction by geologic standards).
  • Overall analysis: I would say that the biggest weakness of the book is a failure to convey a clear new point (an issue that probably stems in part from the general essay-like structure). The stories are interesting, but there could have been a better attempt at a unified idea (beyond this is why we can’t have nice things). She includes a chapter titled “The Thing With Feathers,” an allusion to Emily Dickinson’s poem about Hope. But because neither that chapter nor any of the others are actually very hopeful that man will be able to find a way to control the massive reductions in species diversity, the text is ultimately unlikely to motivate a reader or provide a way forward.

 

The Bottom Line: 4.5/5 stars. It is accessible to the general, non-scientific reader (my mother also enjoyed the book and we were able to discuss it together), and most scientists will likely find it an enjoyable, largely non-technical read. I would recommend this for anyone with an interest (philosophical or practical) in man’s place in the natural world or with extinctions more broadly. I would also recommend this for people who enjoy compelling stories of travel and investigation, since Kolbert’s essays on aspects of species eradication often include personal details of the research she conducted. It provides conversation fodder, and would probably even make a good book group choice.

If you have other books (fiction or nonfiction) that you think I might like, leave them in the comments or send me an email!

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About Greta Jones

@StudentOfEarth
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