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The Sixth Extinction

Posted on Jul 25, 2014

Image by Henry Holt and Co.

By Louise Rubacky

To see long excerpts from “The Sixth Extinction” at Google Books, click here.

“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”
A book by Elizabeth Kolbert

If best-seller lists and box-office tallies are to be believed, people love survival stories that pulse with human ingenuity, grit and spirit. Yet the demise of creatures other than Homo sapiens—perhaps with the exception of tales featuring precocious children and anthropomorphized mammals—rarely gets human hearts racing or hands sweating, though every living thing is wired to continue its lineage and fight for life to the finish.

Of course, evading extinction is a survival story on a mega-epic scale. Yet most extinctions are very slowly paced, not to mention lacking in dramatic structure. The process of extinction becomes perceptible so incrementally that there’s no drama to structure. Nor is there action to bite one’s nails over: no rolling boulders, dashing heroes or cliffhanging. And although mass extinctions have caused quick crashes—like the asteroid event some 66 million years ago that probably took out three-quarters of Earth’s species, including dinosaurs—fast, in geological time, is thought to be hundreds of thousands of years.

So, much like the efforts to convince oxymoronically named conservatives that Earth in all its facets must be conserved, the packaging of the currently-in-progress sixth mass extinction as a dire drama is a tough sell. And not only that it’s real and dangerous, but also that our own “weedy species” is both collective antagonist and prime target of this unfolding tragedy.

Elizabeth Kolbert proves she is able to frame such realities for maximum impact in her extraordinary book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” In both ominous and amusing tones, she weaves together stories of mass and single species extinctions, competing scientific theories through history, and personal observation of current research on waning species to transform this saga of worldwide loss into a riveting read. A Jorge Luis Borges quote, after the title page, foreshadows the ironies within: “Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen.”

From the under-appreciated Georges Cuvier, the 18th century naturalist who, after studying mastodon, mammoth and elephant fossils, first realized that species actually go extinct, to Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, and on through lesser known scientific sleuths such as Ken Caldeira, Richard Fortey, Svante Pääbo, and Walter and Luis Alvarez, whose years of international investigation led to acceptance of the K-T asteroid dust theory, the accounts of persistent puzzle solving and knowledge building are wonderfully absorbing. Also striking are the many instances of arrogance, ignorance and misinterpretation that recur throughout these annals of inquiry. Smart deductions often led nowhere; wild speculations sometimes proved to be dead-on. And still there is no widely accepted theory of mass extinction, despite the mounting evidence that humans are involved in, if not actively driving, the sixth one.

Chapter by chapter, Kolbert shows us how scientific history is strewn with unavoidable missteps, myopia and misunderstandings. A discovery might unveil a mystery or deepen it; only gradually can hypotheses be developed, supported, and proved or disproved. And proof is often elusive or dependent on advancements in technology and related fields. Kolbert draws us into winding mysteries, past and present, illustrating the evolutionary nature of both biological life and knowledge. “Even,” she writes, “the idea that the history of life had a direction to it—first reptiles, then mammals—was mistaken, another faulty inference drawn from inadequate data.”

For years, in essays, articles and earlier books, Kolbert has delivered timely, evenhanded reporting, often using the natural world and its foils as her material. She builds stories with vivid imagery, integrating eye-widening details with relatable analogies that make reading “The Sixth Extinction” a pleasure, despite its convincing evidence of impending, and possibly final, human peril. In the section on long-extinct ammonites—nautilus-like marine creatures—she cleverly and memorably compares their chamber usage to an apartment building where only the penthouse is rented. Equally effective are the images she conjures when describing paleogeneticist Pääbo’s work reconstructing broken-down DNA: “Trying to figure out how all the fragments fit together might be compared to trying to reassemble a Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash, and left to rot in a landfill.”

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