Okay, now I’m really looking forward to reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Review by Kathryn Schulz, in NYMag:
… Environmental issues are not known for their entertainment value: Pollution is dreary, energy wonky, climate change depressing. Perversely, extinction, which should be the most existentially troubling, is something of an exception. That’s thanks almost entirely to the end-Cretaceous, whose outer space–meets–T. Rex plot could have been written by H. P. Lovecraft, or 10-year-old boys, or the folks who brought us Snakes on a Plane.
In print, at least, the New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert shares none of those sensibilities. But in her new book, The Sixth Extinction, she makes a page-turner out of even the most sober and scientifically demanding aspects of extinction. Combining a lucid, steady, understated style with some enviable reporting adventures (chasing frogs in the Panamanian jungle, watching coral spawn in the Great Barrier Reef), she produces a book that is both serious-minded and invites exclamation points into its margins. You will finish The Sixth Extinction knowing a lot about the history and ecology of mass die-offs. You will also know that the Bikini Atoll once went by the less wearable name of Eschscholtz; that certain frogs “survive the winter frozen solid, like popsicles”; and that, if you were a dinosaur in Canada when that asteroid hit the Yucatán, you had approximately two minutes to live.
Those facts—not just the fun ones, the sum total—supply the substance but also the tenor of this book. For a work of what we might term mid-apocalyptic nonfiction, The Sixth Extinction is remarkably restrained. Unlike in her last book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, Kolbert does not embroil herself here in the politics of environmental disaster. Instead, she exposes its ecological mechanisms, and, in what must be among the most studiously neutral sentences ever written, expresses the hope that readers “will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.” By which she means, of course, the truly extraordinary moment in which so much around us begins to die….
In the penultimate chapter of her book, Kolbert [examines] one particularly troubling extinction. The Neanderthals were extremely similar to us; less than 0.3 percent of our DNA diverges. But they did not venture into new terrain, they did not significantly alter the terrain they were already in, and they certainly did not make a bonsai project out of the tree of life. They had, in Kolbert’s words, “no more impact on their surroundings than any other large vertebrate.”
Meanwhile, we Homo sapiens traveled out of Africa en route to everywhere, encountered the Neanderthals in Europe, had sex with them, and, directly or through competition for resources, exterminated them. Some 30,000 years later, we rediscovered them, via their remains, in a cave in limestone cliffs in a valley in Germany. That cave no longer exists. Those cliffs no longer exist. We quarried the limestone, smelted it with coke and iron ore, and converted it to steel.
What species does this? Only ours. Somewhere along the line, thanks to some twist in that 0.3 percent of uniquely human DNA, we became the sort of creatures who could level cliffs and turn stone to steel; “the sort of creature,” Kolbert writes, “who could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.”…