Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert: A review

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches."
                                 - Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich


As far as science has been able to determine, there have been five mass extinctions of life on Earth in the history of our planet. The first of these occurred at the end of the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic era about 450 million years ago. The second occurred less than 100 million years later in the late Devonian period. There followed the End-Permian extinction of some 250 million years ago, the Late Triassic extinction of 200 million years ago, and finally, the last one and the one we are most familiar with, the End-Cretaceous extinction which occurred about 65 million years ago. That's the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. (Well, almost - except for the ancestors of birds.)

The best evidence seems to indicate that all of these extinctions except for the last one were the result of climatological events, often relatively sudden events to which plants and animals did not have time to adapt. The cause of the fifth one was also a change in climate but it was brought about by a collision with an asteroid. That cataclysmic event so altered the climate of the planet for a time that many, many species died out either suddenly or over a period of years.

Scientists believe that we are now in the midst of the sixth extinction which Earth has endured and that this extinction is entirely human-caused. Elizabeth Kolbert writes in this book about how our species has altered life on the planet as no other species has before. It's not just that we are changing the climate for the worse, although that certainly is a big part of it, but we also have altered the face of Earth and the chemistry of the oceans to the detriment of very many species.

One of the biggest problems that we have created for other species is simply the fact that we move everything around and wherever we go on Earth, it seems that some species hitch a ride with us. So a species from Asia that would never under normal circumstances make it to the Americas is brought here either wittingly or unwittingly and it wreaks havoc. Kolbert points out that the most endangered family of animals on Earth today are the amphibians. They are being wiped out by a fungus that has been spread around the world by humans.

Kolbert writes about a dozen species, some of them already irrevocably lost and others on their way out. Through these very personal stories of that wonderful bird the Great Auk, the Panamanian golden frog, staghorn coral, the Sumatran rhino and others, the reader is moved to begin to understand the enormity of what is happening. What we are causing to happen to our world.  

It all reminds me a bit of another subject that I wrote about here recently - the nihilistic ramblings of Rust Cohle, one of the detectives on the HBO series, "True Detective." At one point, he delivers this soliloquy:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Reading Kolbert's book is enough to make one think that perhaps Cohle is on to something there.

It is somewhat surprising to learn that the concept of extinction is not a very old one. Kolbert points out that it was first articulated by Georges Cuvier in the revolutionary Paris of the 18th century. As always it seems, with any new scientific idea or concept, it took a while for it to be accepted, but later work by paleontologists has confirmed Cuvier's findings.

This is a well-written book which can popularize scientific concepts and principles for a mass audience. It is an easy read and a fairly short one at less than 300 pages. Kolbert includes extensive notes and bibliography for those who wish to read more on the subject.


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(Update: There is an interesting article entitled "The Mammoth Cometh" in The New York Times Magazine today about the effort to recreate some extinct animals through cloning.)

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