Elizabeth Kolbert blends field reporting with natural and intellectual history to reveal the mass extinction that's already taking place on the planet. Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.
In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.
Beginnings, it’s said, are apt to be shadowy. So it is with this story, which starts with the emergence of a new species maybe two hundred thousand years ago. The species does not yet have a name—nothing does—but it has the capacity to name things.
As with any young species, this one’s position is precarious. Its numbers are small, and its range restricted to a slice of eastern Africa.
Author’s Note xi
I: The Sixth Extinction 4
II: The Mastodon’s Molars 23
III: The Original Penguin 47
IV: The Luck of the Ammonites 70
V: Welcome to the Anthropocene 92
VI: The Sea Around Us 111
VII: Dropping Acid 125
VIII: The Forest and the Trees 148
IX: Islands on Dry Land 173
X: The New Pangaea 193
XI: The Rhino Gets an Ultrasound 217
XII: The Madness Gene 236
XIII: The Thing with Feathers 259
Selected Bibliography 293
Photo/Illustration Credits 305