Book Reflection: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Patrons of my local library vie for this book. I waited several weeks before I got a chance, even though The Sixth Extinction was published over a year before this time. Then I couldn’t renew it, because of course someone else was in line to read it. Several weeks later down the waiting list I decided that I learned enough in the first few chapters that it’d be worth purchasing my own copy.

Many articles and books on the human impact on biodiversity have a political, idealistic bias or hail the end of the world for every scientific detail that even vaguely indicates some change will impact some species. Elizabeth Kolbert instead took a no-nonsense and open minded approach that only someone with an objective curiosity could take, yet written with the subtlety of someone who cares. Essentially, knowledge first and then the conclusions we can take to heart.

The one pitfall for this book doesn’t pertain to most. I’m already a natural history nerd and have a ecology-focused degree, so a fair portion of the text was old news or too dumbed down. It wasn’t a big deal, but it kept the reading experience from being profound. However, this book is perfect for a mainstream audience or the casual science nerd.


In depth:

Thirteen chapters tackle thirteen locations and a species example, from the chytrid oppressed Panamanian golden frogs to the ocean acidification defying rayed Mediterranean limpets (a rare example that allows scientists to study how some organisms might survive the acidification trend) to the Neanderthals of Germany with who we all share roughly four percent of our DNA.

She wrote holistically. Every chapter addresses trends throughout geological history, is or is not something drastically different in the case of the new Anthropocene, and what other factors might be involved. Global warming? Sure, the planet has been much warmer in the past than now. But it didn’t shift near as fast and all–even the tropical organisms–are cold-climate adapted. Invasive species? This phenomenon also occurs now at a much faster rate than in the past. Kolbert cited the graphs or summarized relevant studies, or even described scenes from when she interviewed the researchers themselves.

As someone who loves landscape ecology, one of my favorite chapters was Chapter 9, “Islands on Dry Land.” Human society occupies a mosaic of plots and lines on land, interrupting movement of animals and even stationary biota (plants have a harder time growing on concrete or on a lawn that’s constantly compacted by traffic). Hiking trail or oil pipe line, animals often won’t cross unnatural barriers. But they have to move to avoid humans, as my favorite line states:

One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers–roads, clear-cuts, cities–that prevent them from doing so.

Humans change boundaries in ways unique to natural history. In a day we can bulldoze a track through the forest, limiting smaller and shier creatures from crossing above ground. Likewise, the compaction of soil involved with constructing roads and buildings prevents life from crossing underneath or regrowing, safe for the occasional advantageous dandelion or sapling. At the same time we have ships that intake water into their ballasts from one bay and release that water in a bay on the other side of the planet. Maybe other invasives-to-be hitching rides on the hulls. Maybe the ship is visiting an island with unique fauna and flora that evolved to cope with minimal competition, but suddenly they have some.

As another chapter of the book is aptly named, we seem to have something of a “New Pangaea”. It started to coalesce slowly, but fast on a geologic time scale, thousands of years ago. Gradually it happened faster, and after the Industrial Revolution it sped up exponentially. Still is. Geographically we have islands in the middle of the ocean, but functionally everything is one mesh of a continent.


One thought on “Book Reflection: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

  1. Thanks for this review. I read this book last year and enjoyed it very much, so I was interested to see some other opinions of it. Great blog by the way.

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