Book review: ‘The Sixth Extinction’

New York TimesFebruary 15, 2014 

“The Sixty Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert.

  • Nonfiction

    The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

    Elizabeth Kolbert

    Henry Holt, 319 pages

The plight of doomed, extinct or nearly extinct animals is embodied in Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction,” by two touching creatures.

Suci, a Sumatran rhino at the Cincinnati Zoo, is one of the few of her endangered species to be “born anywhere over the past three decades.” A Hawaiian crow (or alala) named Kinohi, one of maybe a hundred of his kind alive today, was born at a captive breeding facility more than 20 years ago and now lives at the San Diego Zoo. He has refused to mate with other captive crows, despite the hope that he will contribute to his species’ limited gene pool.

Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, uses Kinohi and Suci and the stories of other imperiled or vanished species to illustrate the fallout of what some scientists have called the sixth extinction – caused not by some unstoppable force of nature (like a falling asteroid or plummeting temperatures) but by mankind’s transformation of the ecological landscape. She mixes reporting trips to far-flung parts of the globe with interviews with scientists and researchers.

She leaves us with a harrowing appreciation of the ways in which human beings have altered the planet: hunting to death big mammals; introducing alien species that disrupt a delicate ecological balance; and altering Earth’s geologic surface (damming major rivers, mowing down forests and cutting up habitats in ways that impede migration). Most significant, she says, has been mankind’s effect on the atmosphere.

“It is estimated,” Kolbert says, “that one third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”

Kolbert writes with elegiac poetry about vanishing creatures, but the real power of her book is in the hard science and historical context she delivers, documenting the losses that human beings are leaving in their wake.

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