In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert looks at the five prior mass extinction events through various species and the scientists who currently study them and then posits (along with the scientific community) that we are in the midst of a sixth extinction that is being caused by humans. The book is divided into various chapters that each present a theme through the discussion of a specific species or group of species and their study. The book tracks our understanding of extinction, mass extinction events, and how understanding of how they occurred. The book is organized somewhat chronologically, but there are diversions. My one critique of the book is that I wish that there had been a short (a few pages would suffice) overview of the different time periods discussed just to give a general overview to people, like me, who do not generally follow this discipline. There was actually a really handy timeline at the end of the book, but on my e-book, I did not see it until I was done. That little nitpick aside, this book was fantastic and easily accessible to lay readers without seeming too dumbed down. Kolbert refers to research by Jared Diamond at a few points in the book and The Sixth Extinction reminded me a lot of his Collapse, albeit much shorter and streamlined.
Some of the chapters focus more on historical events (the discovery of mastodon and mammoth teeth and how scientists at the time tried to fit them into their understanding of the world–clearly they were elephants who were washed away to Siberia in the biblical flood) while others are based on more current events (the catastrophic effects of fungus on amphibians and bats). One thing that I found really interesting is that extinction as a concept was not really thought of until the 1800s–before then, it was thought that every species that was ever created was still living. Kolbert brings up an interesting comparison when she notes how even small children now have a concept of extinction, particularly based on the fact that there are no dinosaurs.
This book had been on my “to read” list for awhile after reading several rave reviews, but I had been avoiding it because it just seemed too depressing. It definitely is a sobering look at humanity’s effect on the rest of the world (and particularly other species) and Kolbert’s conclusion is essentially that while we may be able to make efforts to minimize the damage, humans innately have such an outsize effect on their surroundings that some level of disruption is inevitable. In particular, Kolbert demonstrates that humans have been killing off other species (specifically, “megafauna” such as mastodons and giant ground sloths) essentially since the beginning of humanity and before humans had technology any more advanced that simple stone weapons. She also discusses the destructive impact of human travel and the way in which it transports species in a way (and at a rate) that was never possible before. While we could potentially slow global warming or set aside additional open space, it is highly unlikely that we will ever go back to a way of life where people (and goods and species “stowaways”) do not constantly move between different areas. Thus, those looking for any “solutions” in the book will not find them. Nonetheless, I found the book fascinating and flew through it and would highly recommend it.