Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Sixth Extinction

by Elizabeth Kolbert


The Apocalypse is already here. It just depends which species you belong to. That's the stark message behind The Sixth Extinction, which tells the story of the modern man-made crisis that threatens to wipe out species on a scale not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Elizabeth Kolbert begins with the golden frogs of El Valle de Anton in Panama, but she could have begun anywhere. These once-plentiful frogs saw their numbers plummet until they could only survive in captivity, and the book looks at why that happened and why it could happen again to other species. Mastodons, great auks, coral, rainforest birds, bats, Neanderthals, and rhinos are a few of the species the author focuses on as case studies.

However, this is far more than an extended Red List. The author delves into the history of science, and explores how long it took scientists to understand concepts such as extinction and periodic mass extinctions. There's an examination of the work of naturalist Georges Cuvier and geologist Charles Lyell. They were prominent in piecing together what the fossil record can tell us, and later on Walter and Luiz Alvarez refined this. But it took a few wrong turns, some ridicule, and a lot of evidence gathering for modern theories about the timeline and causes of mass extinctions to emerge and gain acceptance. The book looks at why the scientific community can be reluctant to accept new ideas, and how it can take a mass of evidence before minds change.

The chapters on ocean acidification and coral reefs are particularly chilling. They explain how global warming will affect sea life, particularly the creatures known as calcifiers (such as coral, shellfish, and others). Rather than doing this by speculative projections the author looks at evidence from a volcanic vent where the sea acidity is naturally high. It illustrates the delicate balance a lot of organisms depend on for survival.

Most chapters begin with an anecdote from a trip, often to somewhere exotic. The writing style is very engaging. Whether it's the people involved in conservation and science or the creatures themselves, Kolbert makes them very relatable. Vivid descriptions are coupled with illustrations, so that The Sixth Extinction is in one sense easy to read. In another sense it's extremely hard, given that this is the depressing account of the end of innumerable forms of life. The author finishes by looking to a very bleak future of cryogenic arks, reduced biodiversity, and the possibility that humanity may engineer its own destruction. The author has described a few of the great lengths some conservationists have gone to in order to preserve certain species, and some might see that as an excuse for hope. However, Kolbert refuses to end on an upbeat note. That pessimism goes against the conventions of most popular science books, but perhaps it's the only appropriate tone to take considering the scale of what is happening.

12th May 2014

Book Details

Year: 2014

Categories: Books


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5 star rating

Review ©

Source: library copy