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February 19th, 2014 KATHRYN PEIFER | Books
 

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

A hairy biped takes on survival of the fittest.

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“One weedy species” will destroy earth as we know it, writes Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt and Co., 336 pages, $28). As you might guess, we are that species. Humans, Kolbert warns, have the capacity to actively and consciously alter the future of the planet by destroying major ecosystems and annihilating other species. Or not.

Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, eloquently compiles more than 500 million years of witty anecdotes, narratives of historical figures, and her own firsthand accounts into a concise sci-fi thriller that is, well, true. No matter how resilient the species, scientists know of mass extinctions that contradict Darwin’s idea about “survival of the fittest.” That idea, Kolbert argues, is obsolete: Extinction can be caused by the slightest change in atmosphere or an asteroid slamming into the earth. “The reason this book is being written by a hairy biped, rather than a scaly one,” Kolbert writes, “has more to do with dinosaurian misfortune than with any particular mammalian virtue.”

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have managed to vastly increase the rate of extinction 10,000 times over, some scientists claim. And that is the difference between the previous five extinctions, all of which occurred naturally, and the sixth, which, she argues, is solely our doing. We Homo sapiens act as though we believe we are invincible, Kolbert writes, but we’re putting ourselves at risk of obliteration. 

The book explains to said “hairy bipeds” the importance of shoving an arm into a Sumatran rhino’s rectum, why rats will conquer what’s left of the world, and why a bat with white-nose syndrome, probably brought over on a boat by humans, is like the Bush administration. Streamlining the complexities of the world and our place in it, Kolbert writes that “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.”  


GO: Elizabeth Kolbert appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Thursday, Feb. 20. 7:30 pm. Free.

 
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