The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural History

 by Elizabeth Kolbert

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 selfunderstanding
through the mind of man, life has doomed its most
beautiful creations.


Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen.
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Book Details
 323 p
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 3,483 KB
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 PDF format
 2014 by Elizabeth Kolbert 

About the Author
ELIZABETH KOLBERT is a staff writer at the New Yorker. She is the author of
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. She lives in
Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

Beginnings, it’s said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story,
which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred
thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name—nothing does
—but it has the capacity to name things.
As with any young species, this one’s position is precarious. Its
numbers are small, and its range restricted to a slice of eastern Africa.
Slowly its population grows, but quite possibly then it contracts again—
some would claim nearly fatally—to just a few thousand pairs.
The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or
fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push
into regions with different climates, different predators, and different
prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check
them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions,
they gather shellfish; farther inland, they hunt mammals. Everywhere
they settle, they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe, they encounter
creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably brawnier,
who have been living on the continent far longer. They interbreed with
these creatures and then, by one means or another, kill them off.
The end of this affair will turn out to be exemplary. As the species
expands its range, it crosses paths with animals twice, ten, and even
twenty times its size: huge cats, towering bears, turtles as big as
elephants, sloths that stand fifteen feet tall. These species are more
powerful and often fiercer. But they are slow to breed and are wiped out.
Although a land animal, our species—ever inventive—crosses the sea.
It reaches islands inhabited by evolution’s outliers: birds that lay footlong
eggs, pig-sized hippos, giant skinks. Accustomed to isolation, these
creatures are ill-equipped to deal with the newcomers or their fellow
travelers (mostly rats). Many of them, too, succumb.
The process continues, in fits and starts, for thousands of years, until
the species, no longer so new, has spread to practically every corner of
the globe. At this point, several things happen more or less at once that
allow Homo sapiens, as it has come to call itself, to reproduce at an
unprecedented rate. In a single century the population doubles; then it
doubles again, and then again. Vast forests are razed. Humans do this
deliberately, in order to feed themselves. Less deliberately, they shift
organisms from one continent to another, reassembling the biosphere.
Meanwhile, an even stranger and more radical transformation is
under way. Having discovered subterranean reserves of energy, humans
begin to change the composition of the atmosphere. This, in turn, alters
the climate and the chemistry of the oceans. Some plants and animals
adjust by moving. They climb mountains and migrate toward the poles.
But a great many—at first hundreds, then thousands, and finally perhaps
millions—find themselves marooned. Extinction rates soar, and the
texture of life changes.
No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and
yet other, comparable events have occurred. Very, very occasionally in
the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the
diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were
catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called
Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no
coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people
come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early
to say whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five, it becomes
known as the Sixth Extinction.

The story of the Sixth Extinction, at least as I’ve chosen to tell it,
comes in thirteen chapters. Each tracks a species that’s in some way
emblematic—the American mastodon, the great auk, an ammonite that
disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous alongside the dinosaurs. The
creatures in the early chapters are already gone, and this part of the book
is mostly concerned with the great extinctions of the past and the
twisting history of their discovery, starting with the work of the French
naturalist Georges Cuvier. The second part of the book takes place very
much in the present—in the increasingly fragmented Amazon rainforest,
on a fast-warming slope in the Andes, on the outer reaches of the Great
Barrier Reef. I chose to go to these particular places for the usual
journalistic reasons—because there was a research station there or
because someone invited me to tag along on an expedition. Such is the
scope of the changes now taking place that I could have gone pretty much
anywhere and, with the proper guidance, found signs of them. One
chapter concerns a die-off happening more or less in my own backyard
(and, quite possibly, in yours).

If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so.
It’s also a fascinating one. In the pages that follow, I try to convey both
sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horror of it.
My hope is that readers of this book will come away with an appreciation
of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.

Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Notice
Author’s Note
I: The Sixth Extinction
II: The Mastodon’s Molars
III: The Original Penguin
IV: The Luck of the Ammonites
V: Welcome to the Anthropocene
VI: The Sea Around Us
VII: Dropping Acid
VIII: The Forest and the Trees
IX: Islands on Dry Land
X: The New Pangaea
XI: The Rhino Gets an Ultrasound
XII: The Madness Gene
XIII: The Thing with Feathers
Selected Bibliography
Photo/Illustration Credits
About the Author
Also by Elizabeth Kolbert


Author's Note
Though the discourse of science is metric, most Americans think in terms
of miles, acres, and degrees Fahrenheit. All the figures in this book are
given in English units, except where specially noted.
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