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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History…

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014)

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,1991114,880 (4.17)229
Provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.… (more)
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» See also 229 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 107 (next | show all)
"Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed."

Dark. I mean, you don't buy a book like this without expecting some gloom, but the attempts at optimism are short-lived and not very successful. That being said, the book was very well researched, well constructed, and well executed. Kolbert has written a very influential piece of work, I'm not surprised it won a Pulitzer.

Some parts definitely drag, and it's not a feel-good story, but these are two things I expected from the book. It definitely didn't revolutionize my world view, but it expanded it. I got what I wanted from reading this, and even though it felt a little plain and I had to drag myself to the finish line, I'm glad I did. ( )
  MaxAndBradley | May 27, 2020 |
I love the way Kolbert writes. I think science writers are best when they marvel at the right things, or when they take a moment to make sure you are marveling with them. This book fundamentally changed the way I view earths' history. It's probably the saddest non-fiction book I've ever read, but I also breezed through it in a couple days. ( )
  Jetztzeit | May 15, 2020 |
Each chapter was interesting enough and would have made a nice magazine article. As a book, it didn't work to well. The book was rather superficial and lacked detail. I get the impression that the author thinks humans are evil and responsible for every extinction since humans became a species. Also, there are no pointers on what to do to slow/halt the Sixth Extinction. I didn't learn anything new from this book that I hadn't read somewhere else before - rather disappointing. ( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
I tore through this book. Kolbert can convey an incredibly large quantity of information in very few pages, and without making those pages read like a textbook. The book is well-researched as well, with plenty of notes and an extensive bibliography.

The premise is that humans are acting as an evolutionary force with every bit as much impact as, if not more, than the asteroid that did in the dinosaurs. Kolbert explores the effects of climate change, ocean acidification, global travel, and even our latest efforts to save what we can. The combined effect is one of mass extinction – an estimated one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed towards oblivion, with signs of the current extinction event so close to home that if you know what to look for you might even see the signs in your backyard.

An interesting idea, and something that made me think of our effect on the world in an entirely new way, is that we are in essence hitting the rewind button on geologic history, and at an extremely fast rate. For example, the worst extinction event in the history of the planet (the Permian) was caused by the sudden release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As a result, ocean temperatures rose by eighteen degrees and most ocean ecological communities collapsed – and ninety percent of all species extant at the time went extinct. And now we are acting like the Siberian volcanoes that suddenly released all the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and changing most ocean ecosystems for the worse, while large numbers of species are facing extinction – and sometimes go extinct within a few years of first being described to science.
Global travel represents another way in which we are rewinding geologic history, as we either intentionally or unintentionally introduce new species into new areas: “The drifting apart of the continents that Wegener deduced from the fossil record is now being reversed…By transporting Asian species to North America, and North American species to Australia, and Australian species to Africa, and European species to Antarctica, we are, in effect, reassembling the world into one enormous supercontinent – what biologists sometimes refer to as the New Pangaea.” This reversal of the biological effects of plate tectonics can bring about disastrous effects, especially in the form of invasive species.

The final chapter looks at some of the attempts we are making to keep as many evolutionary pathways open as we can, including last-ditch efforts to freeze cells from endangered species in liquid nitrogen, and is appropriately titled “The Thing with Feathers.” The one thing that makes us different from any previous high-impact evolutionary force is that we can become aware of just how much impact we are having and take action based on what is going around us – and that could make all the difference in how and when the Anthropocene mass extinction event will end. ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
As with all of Elizabeth Kolbert's writing, it is beautifully written, compelling, meticulously researched, well structured, and absolutely terrifying.

The Sixth Extinction (which is happening now--you can be forgiven for not knowing that, since it is so abysmally reported on) is the tale of the many and varied ways humans are causing this latest mass extinction event. They're all here: prehistorical and modern-day overhunting; transmission of invasive species; habitat fragmentation; climate change; ocean acidification. In keeping with the evidence, though very much against the preferences of human psychology, the book ends on a despairing note. While humans do expend a great deal of energy in identifying and saving particular endangered species when they are particularly beautiful or otherwise beloved, that is in no way up to the scale of what's required, and it is very difficult to see how this could be turned around in time.

From page 214: "'As a brief aside,' he went on, 'I read this news story the other day. A place called the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has set up this Web site. People can take a photo of any and all organisms in Vermont and get them registered on this site. If I had read that a few years ago, I would have laughed. I would have said, "You're going to have people sending in a picture of a pine tree?" And now, after what's happened with the little browns [bats], I just wish they had done it earlier." (This after a chapter describing the collapse of bat populations from White Nose Syndrome, and bat researchers revisiting former caves where bats numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now not able to find any, walking through the empty caverns on a carpet of bat carcasses.)

I wish everyone would read this, or at least become more informed about it; not because there's anything we can do by becoming more informed (there almost certainly isn't: within the next hundred years many, and likely most, species will simply cease to exist). But because an event of this significance and caused by us deserves to be marked and mourned while it is happening. A biotic Holocaust is underway all around us, every day, species and families of species being shoved into gas ovens as fast as we can manage it; and outside, we celebrate sporting victories and royal babies and new gizmos to buy. I can think of no more severe condemnation of human nature. ( )
  andrea_mcd | Mar 10, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Kolbertprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bischoff, UlrikeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blanc, MarcelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grzegorzewska, TatianaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grzegorzewski, PiotrTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peddis, CristianoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Riera, Joan LluísTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Twomey, AnneNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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If there is danger in the human trajectory, it is not so much in the survival of our own species as in the fulfillment of the ultimate irony of organic evolution: that in the instant of achieving self-understanding through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations. - E.O. Wilson
Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen. - Jorge Luis Borges
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The town of El Valle de Antón, in Central Panama, sits in the middle of a volcanic crater formed about a million years ago.
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