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The Sixth Extinction

by Elizabeth Kolbert
New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2014
336 pp. Trade, $28.00
ISBN: 0805092994.

Reviewed by George Gessert


By the end of this century somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of all species alive today will be gone. Nothing like this has happened since the dinosaurs disappeared some 66 million years ago. Many writers and scientists have raised warnings––Peter Matthiessen in Wildlife in America, E.O. Wilson in The Future of Life, and Paul Shepard in Nature and Madness are notable examples––but the story needs to be retold because losses continue, and above all, because this time the asteroid is us.

In The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the evidence. Kolbert, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker where she has done exemplary reporting on climate change, marshals facts from a multitude of sources and disciplines. She avoids generalities and abstractions and focuses, instead, on visits to bat caves, underwater C02 vents, and other places where forces driving mass extinction can be easily observed. This part of the book is masterful and so well written that it is something of a page-turner, in spite of the extraordinarily grim subject matter. Her description of the apocalypse that overwhelmed the dinosaurs is nothing less than spectacular, the best I have ever read of that fantastical event. At the same time she maintains a certain emotional distance. Up to a point, this is reassuring. No need to freak out, her presentation seems to say, we’re over here, and the event under examination is still somewhere over there.

This stance works for a while, but I doubt that anyone can consider mass extinction for long without emotion––denial and numbness included. Also, questions intrude, urgent ones: What am I to do? What is anyone to do? Is it too late? Scientists are not obliged to address questions like these, but popularizers can be. Kolbert avoids the questions and, yet, they become more and more pressing as the book proceeds, especially after she notes that some scientists think that we may be facing our own extinction. Most of us are adept at distancing ourselves from the extinction of other species, but our own is another matter.

With these concerns hovering over the narrative, Kolbert examines a few efforts to save endangered species. Among the projects are an attempt to artificially impregnate a Sumatran rhinoceros and Frozen Zoo, a cryogenics facility where samples of an extinct Hawaiian bird are stored in liquid nitrogen in the hope that someday the bird can be reconstituted. Kolbert’s descriptions are amusing and respectful, but at the same time she makes it clear that the projects are likely to fail. Even project leaders acknowledge that what they are doing is probably too little, too late.

Then why continue? Kolbert does not explore this question. The reader is left to wonder if participants persevere out of professional inertia. Are they like soldiers in The Iliad, battling under the sway of malignant and capricious gods? Could the scientists be bearing witness? Is The Sixth Extinction an act of witness? Is that our best option, too, to bear witness?

Despair is understandable. Anyone who thinks seriously about what is happening is almost certain to experience it. The Sixth Extinction is not a study of the psychology of extinction-awareness and not a how-to book about saving the biosphere. Kolbert aims to bring scientific findings to a mass audience and, yet, by observing the conventions of hard science when as a popularizer she does not need to and, at times, should not, and by emphasizing projects that seem very likely to fail, Kolbert conveys despair.

She mentions only in passing hopeful attempts to avoid the worst, such as marine and nature reserves and legislation to protect wildlife. She says nothing about the work of organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, or radical environmentalism. Through these omissions, but above all her failure to address despair, lends it unnecessary strength. We cannot afford unexamined despair any more than we can afford false hopes.

Toward the end of The Sixth Extinction Kolbert raises a philosophical question: Who are we as a species? She considers the possibility that we may harbor a madness gene, DNA that causes suicidal destructiveness. This concept, as treated in the book, strikes me as melodramatic and something of a diversion even though it comes from Sante Paabo, a paleogeneticist.

Also something of a diversion (although it did not have to be) is Kolbert’s attempt to identify when the sixth extinction began. The disappearance of megafauna from Australia, the Americas, and certain islands at about the time that Homo sapiens first entered them strongly suggests that species loss due to human activities began about 40,000 years ago. However, Kolbert does not adequately distinguish between the elimination of paleolithic megafauna, a phenomenon that involved perhaps a few score of species over the course of 30,000 years and what is happening today when the same number of species may be disappearing every few weeks. 30,000 years is not very long in evolutionary time but should not be conflated with a few weeks.

We have no evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers understood that they were driving species to extinction. Today we know very well what we are doing. In many cases we know exactly which of our activities are responsible for what losses. By inadequately distinguishing species loss caused by hunter-gatherers from wholesale devastation unleashed by industrial society, Kolbert deepens the sense that our species is by nature ruinously destructive.

Science is sublimely neutral with respect to outcomes. As a consequence, it allows for many possibilities, ranging from the destruction of all life, to sea changes in culture, to ecologically beneficial but humanly catastrophic events, such as timely pandemics, or economic collapse. Science accommodates such possibilities and so do certain other strands within our culture, but not the greater part of society. What depth and breadth of change would be necessary to halt mass extinction? The Sixth Extinction may be most valuable for questions it raises, yet avoids.

Last Updated 6 May 2014

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