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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History…

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (original 2014; edition 2015)

by Elizabeth Kolbert (Author)

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3,2241483,642 (4.18)249
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)
Title:The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Authors:Elizabeth Kolbert (Author)
Info:Picador (2015), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages
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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)


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Showing 1-5 of 145 (next | show all)
Great but sad book about extinctions and mass extinctions. Interesting history about how biologists and paleontologists etc first began to understand the concept of extinct species, mixed with information about a few of the many species facing extinction right now or that have disappeared in the recent past. Not a happy topic, but not an overly depressing book considering the subject matter. ( )
  steve02476 | Jan 3, 2023 |
Non-fiction about the previous five mass extinctions of world history and the probability of a sixth extinction being precipitated by humans. Kolbert investigates biological and environmental factors contributing to this phenomenon. She analyzes the current research being conducted by scientists across the globe as well as evidence of past mass extinctions. She travels to these locations and describes her experiences. She reports on a variety of species, some of which are already extinct and others on the verge of being wiped out. She analyzes the reasons behind the extinctions, many of which can be traced to the actions of humans.

This book covers a wide breadth of scientific disciplines, such as paleontology, anthropology, meteorology, geology, oceanography, and ecology. In addition to the expected analysis of climate change and deforestation, she covers the acidification of the oceans (something I had not heard before). Each chapter focuses on a different extinct or endangered species. I found myself rapidly turning to pages to learn more.

Highlights include the decline of the Neanderthal, ravages of invasive species, decreasing biodiversity, and perilous position of large mammals such as elephants, bears, and the big cats. It combines elements of scientific explanation, history, travelogue, and personal reflections. It is an intelligent and lively commentary that illuminates current issues and provides a warning.

It requires a keen interest in science and history, and if you are so inclined, this book is riveting. The historic ages of the earth are explained and what is known about the five previous extinctions. The history of scientific thought is traced, including Darwin’s (and Lyell’s and Wallace’s) theories and subsequent elaborations. It is a treasure trove of information and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Well, as much as one can “enjoy” a book about extinction.
( )
1 vote Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Patrons of my local library vie for this book. I waited several weeks before I got a chance, even though the book was published over a year before this time. Then I couldn't renew it, because of course someone else was in line to read it. Several weeks later down the waiting list I decided that I learned enough in the first few chapters that it'd be worth purchasing my own copy.

Many articles and books on the human impact on biodiversity have a political, idealistic bias or hail the end of the world for every scientific detail that even vaguely indicates some change will impact some species. Elizabeth Kolbert instead took a no-nonsense and open minded approach that only someone with an objective curiosity could take, yet written with the subtlety of someone who cares. Essentially, knowledge first and then the conclusions we can take to heart.

The one pitfall for this book doesn't pertain to most. I'm already a natural history nerd and have a ecology-focused degree, so a fair portion of the text was old news or too dumbed down. It wasn't a big deal, but it kept the reading experience from being profound. However, this book is perfect for a mainstream audience or the casual science nerd.

In depth:

Thirteen chapters tackle thirteen locations and a species example, from the chytrid oppressed Panamanian golden frogs to the ocean acidification defying rayed Mediterranean limpets (a rare example that allows scientists to study how organisms might survive the acidification trend) to the Neanderthals of Germany with who we all share roughly four percent of our DNA.

She wrote holistically. Every chapter addresses trends throughout geological history, is or is not something drastically different in the case of the new Anthropocene, and what other factors might be involved. Global warming? Sure, the planet has been much warmer in the past than now. But it didn't shift near as fast and all--even the tropical organisms--are cold-climate adapted. Invasive species? This phenomenon also occurs now at a much faster rate than in the past. Kolbert cited the graphs or summarized relevant studies, or even described scenes from when she interviewed the researchers themselves.

As someone who loves landscape ecology, one of my favorite chapters was Chapter 9, "Islands on Dry Land." Human society occupies a mosaic of plots and lines on land, interrupting movement of animals and even stationary biota (plants have a harder time growing on concrete or on a lawn that's constantly compacted by traffic). Hiking trail or oil pipe line, animals often won't cross unnatural barriers. But they have to move to avoid humans, as my favorite line states:

"One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it's changing in ways that create barriers--roads, clear-cuts, cities--that prevent them from doing so." ( )
  leah_markum | Oct 28, 2022 |

The author is a science writer; she's not an ecologist. Thus, you will not read much in this book about how animal agriculture is responsible for some 66% of climate change, thus driving the Sixth Extinction in a frenzy. You won't read about how animals that humans love to eat need pastureland that there is not enough room for on this Earth and that's why capitalists love to burn down rainforests in order to plant pastureland. You won't read about how ponds full of feces and blood and urine from animal agriculture facilities are sprayed into the air, are leaked into rivers and other waterways... into the Gulf of mexico. You won't read much about plastic, being recycled or not, and ending up in the ocean and killing animals.
This is about Extinction events. Humans are causing the sixth Extinction, the one we are looking at at this moment. It won't take all of us humans with it; the rich will build their rocketships and build their domes on mars or habitats inside of mountains, once the"great unwashed" die off from an unhabitably climate-changed earth.
The author did a good job of making the reader realize what pendejos humans are, including herself, including me, including you. But even if Elizabeth and you and all individuals were vegan, recycled, rode bicycles and used public transportation, the capitalists do more damage to the planet than all of our efforts combined can outdo.

2014, Hardcover, Henry Holt and Company, LLC

40 miles off newfoundlands Northeast Coast is the Isle of birds today, known as funk Island. Sailors in the early 16th century found this Island full of penguin-like birds, called Great Auks, standing shoulder to shoulder. Humans being humans, they proceeded to slaughter them, usually very cruelly.
Aaron Thomas, who sailed on the HMS Boston, wrote:
" 'if you come for their feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the feathers. You then turn the poor penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.'
There are no trees on funk Island, and hence nothing to burn. This led to another practice chronicled by thomas.
'you take a kettle with you into which you put a penguin or two, you Kindle a fire under it and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate penguins themselves. Their bodies being oily soon produce a flame.' "
Humans finished off this species ~1800.

"What is sometimes labeled neocatastrophism, but is mostly nowadays just regarded as standard geology, holds that conditions on Earth change only very slowly, except when they don't. In this sense the reigning Paradigm is neither cuvierian nor darwinian but combines key elements of both -- 'long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.' Though rare, these moments of panic are disproportionately important. They determine the pattern of extinction, which is to say, the pattern of life."

"*A useful mnemonic for remembering the geologic periods of the last half-billion years is Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak (Cambrian - ordovician - silurion - devonian - Carboniferous - Permian - Triassic - Jurassic - Cretaceous). The mnomonic unfortunately runs out before the most recent periods: the Paleogene, the neogene, and the current quaternary." [Anthropocene]

"Roughly 1/3 of the CO2 that humans have so far pumped into the air has been absorbed by the oceans. This comes to a stunning 150 billion metric tons. As with most aspects of the anthropocene, though, it's not only the scale of the transfer but also the speed that's significant. A useful (though admittedly imperfect) comparison can be made to alcohol. Just as it makes a big difference to your blood chemistry whether you take a month to go through a six pack or an hour, it makes a big difference to Marine chemistry whether carbon dioxide is added over the course of a million years or 100. To the oceans, as to the human liver, rate matters.
.... As Rachel Carson once observed, referring to a very different but at the same time profoundly similar problem: 'time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.' "

One of the most destructive things humans do is transport non-native species by traveling the globe.
"The corollary to leaving old antagonists behind is finding new, naive organisms to take advantage of. A particularly famous -- and Ghastly -- instance of this comes in the long skinny form of the brown tree snake, boiga irregularis. The snake is native to Papua New Guinea and Northern australia, and it found its way to Guam in the 1940s, probably in military cargo. The only snake indigenous to the island is a small sightless creature the size of a worm; thus Guam's fauma was entirely unprepared for boiga irregularis and its voracious feeding habits. The snake ate its way through most of the island's native birds, including the Guam flycatcher, last seen in 1984; the Guam rail, which survives only owing to a captive breeding program; and the Mariana fruit dove, which is extinct on Guam (though it persists on a couple of other, smaller Islands). Before the tree snake arrived, Guam had three native species of mammals, all bats; today only one -- the Marianas flying fox -- remains, and it is considered highly endangered. Meanwhile, the snake, also a beneficiary of enemy release, was multiplying like crazy; at the peak of what is sometimes called it's 'irruption,' population densities were as high as 40 snakes per acre. So thorough has been the devastation wrought by the brown tree snake that it has practically run out of native animals to consume; nowadays it feeds mostly on other interlopers, like the curious skink, a lizard also introduced to Guam from Papua New guinea. The author David Quammen cautions that while it is easy to demonize the brown tree snake, the animal is not evil; it's just amoral and in the wrong place. What boiga irregularis has done in guam, he observes, 'is precisely what Homo sapiens has done all over the planet: succeeded extravagantly at the expense of other species.' "

"Archaic humans like Homo erectus 'spread like many other mammals in the old world,' Pääbo told me. 'They never came to madagascar, never to australia. Neither did neanderthals. It's only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you Don't see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it's ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to mars. We never stop.'
If Faustian restlessness is one of the defining characteristics of modern humans, then, by Pääbo's account, there must be some sort of Faustian gene. Several times, he told me that he thought it should be possible to identify the basis for our 'madness' by comparing Neanderthal and human dna. 'if we one day will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing to think it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything,' he said at one point. At another, he said, 'we are crazy in some way. What drives it? That I would really like to understand...' "

"... When a mass extinction occurs, it takes out the weak and also lays low the strong. V-shaped graptolites were everywhere, and then they were nowhere. Ammonites swam around for hundreds of millions of years, and then they were gone. The anthropologist Richard Leakey has warned that 'Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.' a sign in the Hall of biodiversity offers a quote from the Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich: 'in pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.' " ( )
  burritapal | Oct 23, 2022 |
I don’t really pretend to understand most of it, other than that people should stop eating meat, (not sure if she goes into application like that, it’s mostly natural history and history of science—things I know little about), but it’s perfectly wholesome and significant and strikes me as true, you know.

It’s striking the way some scientists treat their fellows and the public—you know, just for me to be me, if you like, to expand on it. We don’t believe the Alvarez theory (in the 80s, I mean) about the extinction of the dinosaurs, so that makes the Alvarez people Bad: they’re Bad little boys, and they should feel sorry. No dessert. And people with a different specialization: bad bad bad. You know.

So I mean, I don’t pretend not to be guilty by association, if you like, in terms of where they got that, attitude or stance or whatever, but it is significant, you know, just to investigate that. The philosophical or religious or spiritual question— What is a belief, and what do you do with one, and what’s your plumb line or whatever for, what beliefs (if any) are worth shaking your finger at someone and telling them that they’re a bad boy, you know. “To say that about the Mesozoic! Shame, Mr. Alvarez!” It could be, you know, Well, my specialty is…. Therefore….

It’s not a technical question about the factually correct, that’s the whole devil, the devil that says, The factually incorrect is the only name of the morally repugnant.

But Elizabeth wrote a great book, and people should wake up and stop eating meat or do something real about the sixth extinction, instead of being so damn selfish.

And not, you know, to go, Yes, BILBO’S life basically started at fifty, (stupid accent for for reason, just so it sounds stupid because it is), But ‘e wosn’t a girl, now wos ‘e?

If you’re a girl you’ve got to be young and pretty and follow the rules—no extinctions and Earth history, please.

So, there’s that. That’s kinda why I read the book to be honest, although I read about it in Andrew’s Brief Earth History book. (8 chapters! Four billion years!)

…. I suppose one day ‘natural history’ will consist largely of the pictures and other cataloged data of species, of whole ecosystems, that we’ve done in.

That’s pretty sad.

…. At one level of consciousness, it obviously doesn’t matter what happens to the rainforest, it only matters whether we have enough money to get that cup that says, Football and fucking, y’all, or, that shirt that says, Alcoholic: And Not In Recovery.

Then we go to the next level—a definite improvement—where we do care about our fellow creatures, so we become vegetarians, read about the sixth extinction, and so on. In this general neighborhood we might also go on Twitter and rant about how the bad people are ruining everything, you know. Although I don’t think that that’s quite Elizabeth’s address.

But I think there might be another level—you can react to me however you wish of course, I’m glib, I’m arrogant; I’m this I’m that—but although the fate of a hundred species might matter about as much as the fate of a hundred humans, who knows…. And certainly although some species like some humans are sexier and cooler, it doesn’t mean that anything exists that doesn’t matter…. But just like it doesn’t matter if I get every book I want, obviously, or even if I survive: now obviously I don’t Really realize that most of the time, but, I’d like to understand more that it doesn’t matter that sometimes my planned structured time gets interrupted by unstructured time—you know, technology fails and life goes to shit and you look at a blank screen for an indefinite number of minutes—it also doesn’t matter on some level whether a hundred animal “people” (species) survive or do not survive the drive for more and more lewd cup and shirt designs, country rap music, etc.

I mean, you do what you can, and you shouldn’t eat lobster just because it tastes good or chicken just because everyone else does. You do what you can.

But it doesn’t matter, what happens…. Life is just an experiment that God is conducting, but don’t worry, she’s pretty sure about how it all turns out. It’s been done before, I guess.

…. But we must begin to take care of the animal “people” though (the other species), if we want to stabilize our home, long-term, and this would be a much more wholesome thing to do than much of the musing that passes for adult responsibility. (You know, I think that when white people left America and colonized Europe, they really stopped being white people, because, because…. Well, and anyway, the so-called Native Americans don’t belong here because they’re really Indians, from India, you know: one of the Jewish countries.)

I mean, it just makes sense: you do something, you think how it effects the other “people”. You don’t imprison one “person” in a work-prison if you don’t have to, and bulldoze apartments for a hundred other “people” to make lots and lots of room for that prison, you know.

Seriously. You gotta at least think about it, or do something, or I don’t know, at least admit that you’re not the emperor of the world, but it’s like everybody thinks that they’re the emperor and it’s because they know some stupid factoid about advertising or municipal taxes (and boy, I tell ya, that mayor of ours should suffer: they should take away his house, and put him in jail!).

…. It would be nice if scientists and sages could come together to negotiate how much impact humans (or any other species) should be allowed or is “entitled” to have, although clearly that is not a near-term possibility. We don’t know yet, and the mass of people (drink beer, have sex, fear foreigners, even, get a degree), would reject whatever was decided instead of interacting, participating, and acting rightly…. All we know is that we should at least try to be stewards and not rapists of our home, and that what we are doing now does not work long-term. (Indeed, most people today are obsessively short-term and recentist.) And I believe that also one day we will be judged positively or negatively for our actions or non-actions, by God and indeed by history. In the end I believe it will be very satisfying; we will be able to do it even better than our ancestors, and it all will not have been for nothing. But the end in that sense (of course there is no end, really, or else it is Now), will not come in my lifetime, or that of anyone alive now—no, not even the zoomers.

…. Anyway, I was just trying to help my friend curious duckie the scientist, so I hope I didn’t hurt him or make him feel too sad, you know. (And remember, he’s a girl, so don’t eat him. He’s nice.)
  goosecap | Sep 5, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (11 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
Levavi, Meryl SussmanDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peddis, CristianoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pracher, RickCover designersecondary 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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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.

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