In our current knowledge, there have been five mass extinctions. Scientists today believe that we are in the middle of the sixth.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert does an excellent job of communicating the science surrounding extinction. Broken into thirteen chapters, with each chapter dedicated to a specific species, the book explores the factors and history behind their demise in a clear and understandable way.
From visiting the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in Panama, to trekking through Amazonian reserves, Kolbert brings us along in descriptive, yet witty, prose that plants us in nature’s moment.
She also braved the horrific scenes of deceased bats in a cave during a Vermont winter, and observed a Sumatran rhino ultrasound (performed by a zoo director with the help of long plastic gloves) to shed light firsthand on the scientific processes that often happen behind the scenes!
As someone with a biological background that leans more towards ecology, I felt that Kolbert did a great job navigating the complicated subject, while keeping topics engaging for those who are already familiar with the science. She had a strong grasp of the material, but I do wish she delved more into why exactly a mass extinction is a big deal and what its consequences are for us.
The book does attribute the Anthropocene, or the age of human influence on climate and the environment, as one of the factors in some of the extinctions detailed in its chapters. However, I personally felt Kolbert focused on human influence throughout history more than the impact of our present-day activities on the environment.
In particular, the build-up of natural history discussions, concepts of invasive species and scientific processes behind our changing environments seemed to fall flat in the final takeaways of the book.
One interesting aspect of the conclusion includes these lines: “to argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”
Whether readers agree with this statement or not is likely due to a blend of personal politics, lived experiences, and morals. Give The Sixth Extinction a read and you might change your original opinion regarding the quote, but regardless, the book would certainly enlighten you on the natural history of our planet and the individuals that have passed through the eons of time.