The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, $37)
Reviewed by John Lang
Very few of us ever feel compelled to really comprehend geological deep time. Why should we? In a few thousand years, a blink in the cosmos, we will be long decomposed and molecularly scattered. Earth will be here, but we won’t.
With The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Bloomsbury), Elizabeth Kolbert joins the ranks of authors Bill Bryson, Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also presents the TV documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”) who understand the merits of appreciating deep time. And as authors, they can expertly communicate that to us, or at least try. Their main weapon of choice: analogy, one of the few techniques that can reveal to us what is otherwise invisible.
In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert uses a different but equally powerful technique. She begins by asking us to imagine a new species that emerged around 200,000 years ago faced with what you’d expect one to encounter: hostility, competition and above all, a necessity to adapt. Soon this species – thanks to a few unique traits such as intelligence, curiosity, language and co-operative behavior – manages to reproduce and spread itself expediently across the earth’s surface. Its members even find ways to cross oceans without having to evolve back into amphibians. Eventually, this resourceful biped manages to transform 70 per cent of the planet’s surface, extract its subterranean energy reserves, and enslave or extinguish many of Earth’s other occupants for its own benefit.
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