Few writers engage readers in thinking about the meaning of scientific discoveries as well as Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Kolbert’s enviable talents, her wit and intelligence, the clarity of her prose, are on full display in The Sixth Extinction, a fascinating and alarming book that examines mass extinctions of life forms, past and present.
The very idea of species extinction is relatively recent. It “finally emerged as a concept, probably not coincidentally, in revolutionary France,” Kolbert writes in an early chapter about the discovery of bones of the American mastodon. Since then, naturalists and scientists have debated the mechanism of mass extinction—do species evolve, so to speak, into extinction, or do they disappear rapidly, catastrophically? (The answer, Kolbert writes with customary wit, is that “as in Tolstoy, every extinction event appears to be unhappy—and fatally so—in its own way.”)
In the first half of her book, Kolbert explores these scientific debates by looking at five previous mass extinctions, times when “conditions change so drastically or so suddenly (or so drastically and so suddenly) that evolutionary history counts for little.” Her strategy here and throughout the book is to focus on an emblematic species—the great auk, for example—and build a layered narrative about each mass extinction event.
In the second half of the book, Kolbert focuses on threatened but not-yet-extinct species to make her most telling point: that humans have become a—perhaps the—force of nature, capable of changing the world “faster than species can adapt.”
What our massively disruptive power means, we cannot fully know. But, as Kolbert writes at the end of the book, “Among the many lessons that emerge from the geologic record, perhaps the most sobering is that in life, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
The Sixth Extinction is a must-read for anyone concerned in any way, shape or form about the future of life on planet Earth.