Book Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”, is a staff writer at The New Yorker, who has focused her recent books on climate change and the consequences the Earth and its inhabitants face. “The Sixth Extinction” delivers in providing a simple conceptual overview of the Earth’s five mass extinctions and how these past events may illustrate current evidence of climate change and our current “sixth” extinction.

The first half of the book contains historical references, beginning with Darwin and Cuvier, who avidly set the stage for the concept of extinction. Extinction is a relatively new concept, as far as humans are concerned, and reading this set up in the book pleased the scientist in me. It is important that the audience reading this book understands where the theory of evolution and extinction come from. She transitions from this historical background to the five mass extinctions in history.

The first mass extinction, the Ordovician-Silurian is thought to be caused by glaciations. At this time there were mostly sea creatures, many who reached their demise during the extinction. Alternatively, the third, and largest, the Permian, nearly wiped out all species on Earth. Quite frankly, we are quite lucky that we are here today. According to scientists, this extinction was thought to be caused by acidic ocean water and global warming, partially due to massive volcanic activity. The fifth mass extinction is the most widely known, when the dinosaurs went extinct, due to an asteroid hitting Earth. Once this discovery occurred, the asteroid theory as an answer for the cause of the other mass extinctions gained momentum. However, there has been no evidence for any other mass extinctions to have been caused by an asteroid.

So what do these have to do with us? We can see similarities in these planetary responses; i.e. acidic ocean water, global warming, species extinctions, overpopulation, and others, but the cause is different. We, as human beings, are the problem.

Instead of presenting bare facts from scientific literature as one would expect in academia, Kolbert dutifully presents difficult theories and facts to a broader audience. She utilizes her reporter/columnist side to personally communicate with many theorists and scientist that have created these concepts and uncovered geological (and other) evidence. This allows the reader to feel more involved in the informational aspect of each of the mass extinctions. Her experience joining researchers in the field is a comical relief as she struggles to wade through torrential downpour in Panama, or recounts the extinction of many animals by European explorers. There is a definite entertainment value while still being devoted to science.

So what do these have to do with us? Other than telling us about the past? Researchers are starting to see similarities in planetary changes; i.e. acidic ocean water, global warming, species extinctions, overpopulation. However, it is not due to an asteroid, glaciation, or massive volcanic eruptions. We, as human beings, are the problem. Kolbert touches on the issues of global warming, providing a cautionary tale of the extinction we are currently experiencing. She spent most of the book delving into the science, but did not touch on preventative measures or what the future may hold. Since this novel can reach out to a wide audience, it could have been strengthened by educating the public on how serious global warming is and connect the scientific facts with our impending doom. Ultimately, her goal was not to provide steps on what to do, but rather to focus on the potential, from an evolutionary perspective, of other species. The extinction event is certainly not something we will each experience in our personal lifetimes, making this approach a bit more digestible. Even if you don’t necessarily agree.

This novel achieves its goal of appealing to a wide range of consumers, academics and non-academics alike. She is able to communicate complex and complicated information in a concise and understandable way that may usually leave some readers bogged down in conceptual comprehension. While she does not end the book with a “call to action”, which is typical in most novels broaching this subject, she instead leaves it to the mind of the reader. The reader has the opportunity to take this information and consciously choose what they want to do with it. “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” is a great recount of the mass extinctions in Earth’s history, but leaves the audience questioning what may be done to alter the message of an end-all in our future.

Overall I highly recommend this novel for an informative, yet entertaining read, that still accurately presents our future human-made extinction event.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Elizabeth Kolbert. New York: Picador, 2014. 276 pp.

ISBN 9781250062185 $18.50

Read an article about Elizabeth Kolbert and her novel

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