Few writers engage readers in thinking about the meaning of scientific discoveries as well as Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Kolbert’s enviable talents, her wit and intelligence, the clarity of her prose, are on full display in The Sixth Extinction, a fascinating and alarming book that examines mass extinctions of life forms, past and present.
The very idea of species extinction is relatively recent. It “finally emerged as a concept, probably not coincidentally, in revolutionary France,” Kolbert writes in an early chapter about the discovery of bones of the American mastodon. Since then, naturalists and scientists have debated the mechanism of mass extinction—do species evolve, so to speak, into extinction, or do they disappear rapidly, catastrophically? (The answer, Kolbert writes with customary wit, is that “as in Tolstoy, every extinction event appears to be unhappy—and fatally so—in its own way.”)
In the first half of her book, Kolbert explores these scientific debates by looking at five previous mass extinctions, times when “conditions change so drastically or so suddenly (or so drastically and so suddenly) that evolutionary history counts for little.” Her strategy here and throughout the book is to focus on an emblematic species—the great auk, for example—and build a layered narrative about each mass extinction event.
In the second half of the book, Kolbert focuses on threatened but not-yet-extinct species to make her most telling point: that humans have become a—perhaps the—force of nature, capable of changing the world “faster than spe[Tue Sep 2 00:37:27 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. cies can adapt.”
What our massively disruptive power means, we cannot fully know. But, as Kolbert writes at the end of the book, “Among the many lessons that emerge from the geologic record, perhaps the most sobering is that in life, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
The Sixth Extinction is a must-read for anyone concerned in any way, shape or form about the future of life on planet Earth.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Evidence of a human-made mass extinction seems everywhere around us: long lists of endangered species, high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air and oceans, and biodiversity losses from deforestation of the tropics. New Yorker staff writer Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change) traveled all over the world to interview marine biologists, atmospheric scientists, geologists, forest ecologists, and paleontologists about their take on the Sixth Extinction (five other major extinctions have occurred in Earth's history). Tracing how extinction itself evolved as a scientific concept, Kolbert discusses the great animal extinctions of the past as well as the imminent loss of present-day animals such as the Sumatran rhino and the little brown bat. VERDICT The charm of this book (inasmuch as a book about extinction can have charm) lies in Kolbert's hands-on approach to her subject--searching for Panamanian frogs in the dark, hunting for graptolite fossils in Scotland, and observing coral spawning at Australia's Great Barrier Reef. This solid, engaging, multidisciplinary science title should appeal to a broad range of science enthusiasts, particularly those interested in environmental conservation.--Cynthia Lee Knight, formerly, Hunterdon Cty. Lib., Flemington, NJ[Page 126]. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
New Yorker staff writer Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe) accomplishes an amazing feat in her latest book, which superbly blends the depressing facts associated with rampant species extinctions and impending ecosystem collapse with stellar writing to produce a text that is accessible, witty, scientifically accurate, and impossible to put down. The eponymous extinction refers to the fact that the current rate of species loss is approaching that of the mass extinctions that ended five previous geologic epochs. Kolbert's reporting takes her from the Andes to the Great Barrier Reef, and from a bare rock island off the coast of Iceland to a cave near Albany, N.Y. Throughout, she combines a historical perspective with the best modern science on offer, while bringing both scientists and species to life. As dire as our problems are today, Kolbert explains that they did not begin with the industrial revolution: "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." Kolbert, however, offers some optimism based on the passion the concept of extinction evokes: "Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we're willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows." (Feb.)[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC