The Sixth Extinction

An Unnatural History

Kolbert, Elizabeth

Book - 2014
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
The Sixth Extinction
Over the last half billion years, there have been five major mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on Earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around the cataclysm is us. In this book the author tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. She provides a moving account of the disappearances of various species occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up to Lyell and Darwin, and 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.

Publisher: New York :, Henry Holt and Company,, 2014.
Edition: First edition.
Copyright Date: ♭2014
ISBN: 9781250062185
Characteristics: 319 pages :,illustrations, map ;,25 cm


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Mar 20, 2015
  • stewstealth rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

Well written account on the current high level of species extinctions. Whether through climate changes or habitat loss the author pinpoints the blame on humanity. There are two reservations on the book, firstly the notations are not directly linked so you can not check specific statements without a lot of work, secondly most scientific prognostications for complex systems that use small data points and are then extrapolated forward are usually wrong. The author does bring the second point up with some of the claims but it is done only reservedly. Worth reading.

Mar 12, 2015
  • Bill2smith rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

What is most appealing about The Sixth Extinction is how accessible the author makes all the scientific information. Most of it consists of stories about the author’s excursions to sites where scientific experiments are being conducted, or data is being collected, or some species on the verge of extinction is being protected. Elizabeth Kolbert knows how to frame the facts in a good story, sometimes framed as mysteries.

Along the way, she describes some of the previous extinction events. One of the interesting facts she discusses is how the concept of extinction was a kind of paradigm change: In the early 1800s, no one had considered that species might have gone extinct. It was a new idea, and initially, very controversial, just as evolution and natural selection were matters of much debate. Kolbert discusses Darwin’s contribution to both theories.

One of the most interesting chapters describes how a related controversy, and another paradigm change. It’s about whether extinction events ever happen suddenly. Darwin and others had convinced the scientific community that extinction, like evolution, happened very slowly, over many thousands of years. It occurred in the geological time frame. It took a great deal of hard evidence to convince geologists and biologists that the last extinction happened quickly, as a result of a meteor impact. Kolbert describes how a father and son team accumulated enough evidence, over the course of about 20 years, to convince the community that this was a sudden event.

Kolbert provides convincing evidence that this latest extinction is the result of thousands of years of human activity. We generally think of the industrial revolution as the beginning of our impact on climate change, but Kolbert describes the many species that went extinct at the same time, in geological history, that humans appeared on the scene.

Kolbert rarely injects her opinions until the last chapter; she describes the research and the evidence in memorable stories. The stories build up to a crescendo, with cumulative evidence that humans are behind the current extinction, the sixth extinction. Many scientists refer to the current geological period as the “Anthropocene.”

This is the best “science book” I’ve ever read.

Aug 11, 2014
  • john_doh rated this: 2 stars out of 5.

The broad narrative is that species are quickly dying out and it is primarily human caused in this latest great extinction. The book makes a good case that this is true (ocean acidification), and there is a fair amount of hand wringing about that fact, but no suggestions on how to stop it. It looks like a lot of species are going to get wiped out (in addition to the ones we already have taken out out like the Auk). It seemed like she kind of fluffed it up to make it a full book. Do I really need to have descriptions of her vacations and what a scientist looked like? It also seems kind of ironic that she flew all over the places which is one of the main parts of the problem. If scientist/authors really believe that AGW is destroying the planet they need to act like it and try to set an example (not flying). If you have an audience and you set an example that is going to carry a lot more weight than the average jane/joe. I guess if you look at it from a geological time frame there is bound to be another mass extinction, so why fight the inevitable and just accept that this time it is our turn to wipe out most of the life on the planet.

Aug 06, 2014
  • voisjoe1 rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

In each of the chapters, Kolbert describes one or more of her personal scientific trips, mostly to exotic nature research sites, showing what great work the world’s scientists are performing to understand species extinction, species migration, and species evolution. Many scientists now believe we are going through the world’s sixth extinction which is taking place probably with the major cause being humans. Humans eliminate natural habitats for animals, humans have always hunted animals, and humans are bringing about a rapid rise of the planet’s temperatures, too rapid for many species to migrate to suitable locations. Throughout the journeys through each chapter, we learn much about exotic creatures, some still around us and some extinct.

May 19, 2014
  • GummiGirl rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Fascinating, if mostly depressing. It covers several major causes of extinction--climate change, habitat fragmentation, the worldwide spread of diseases--and discusses earlier waves of extinction as well. It does include a fair amount of scientific detail, but the lay reader needn't understand every bit of it to get the gist of the arguments. I found it well written and I learned a lot from it.

May 05, 2014
  • swlawrence rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Definitely planning to recommend this book for our book club.
The story about the loss of the golden toad is one that our family experienced with a trip to Costa Rica 20 years ago. Our kids were small, we had hoped to see it, but naturalists there explained that it was thought extinct, and subsequent years of evidence sadly support that finding.
Read this book.

Apr 24, 2014
  • readmorebooks rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

what a great book. If you love history and worry about what's next, read this book!

Mar 22, 2014
  • bibken rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

I think 'Absolute hogwash' lacks a certain critical element, one might say, of supporting evidence. Perhaps some people just have a hard time accepting that our species has a significant, and very often harmful, impact on the biosphere. But without some details, we'll never know what caused Gabriel67 to shout out in the night. I have also read a previous book by Elizabeth Kolbert, "Field notes from a catastrophe", and I recall it being well-written.

Mar 07, 2014

Absolute Hogwash..


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