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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon February 12, 2014
As a former invertebrate paleobiologist, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" is the book I have been waiting for years to be written. It is a clarion call for ending the current mass extinction that we humans are causing, and a book that should be, according to Scientific American, "this era's galvanizing text", worthy of comparison with Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring". It is also a vastly superior popular science book than last year's "Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction" written by IO9 science editor Annalee Newitz, simply because Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has done a superlative job in science reporting, accurately reporting and interpreting work done by some of the most notable researchers of our time studying mass extinctions, whether it is research from Berkeley vertebrate paleobiologist Anthony Barnosky (The lead author of a 2011 Nature paper estimating that current extinction rates are equivalent to those of the five great mass extinctions recognized from the fossil record; the terminal Ordovician, terminal Permian, terminal Triassic and the terminal Cretaceous; the latter in which non-avian dinosaurs became extinct.) or American Museum of Natural History curator of invertebrate paleontology Neil Landman, a noted researcher of Cretaceous ammonites, or evolutionary geneticist and anthropologist Svante Paabo, whose team is sequencing the entire Neanderthal genome and recognized the existence of another late Pleistocene hominid species, the Denisovans, from genomic material in a fragment of a finger bone found in a Siberian cave. What Kolbert has written is a spellbinding work of science journalism worthy of comparison with David Quammen's "The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions", and one that belongs on the bookshelves of anyone interested in science, and especially those who may not grasp the full extent of the ongoing mass extinction being caused by us, humanity. Moreover, at the end of her book, she provides an extensive bibliography which notes many of the most important relevant scientific papers as well as important texts written by the likes of notable ecologists James H. Brown and Michael Rosenzweig, and paleobiologists Michael Benton, Douglas Erwin and Richard Fortey. Without question, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History", may be one of the most discussed, most important, books of popular science published this year.

In her opening chapter, "The Sixth Extinction", in prose that is hauntingly beautiful and poignant, Kolbert cites the disappearance of Panamanian frogs and toads as one emblematic of the ongoing crisis in biodiversity, noting that of all the major groups of terrestrial vertebrates, amphibians are the ones which are most rapidly going extinct before our very eyes. She uses the discoveries of fossil mastodons and mammoths in North America and Europe in the 18th and early 19th Centuries in the second chapter ("The Mastodon's Molars") to introduce readers to the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier who was the first to recognize the existence of extinct species and the likelihood that they died during great cataclysms in Earth's history. Her third chapter, "The Original Penguin", is an especially lucid account of British geologist Charles Lyell's uniformitarian view of Earth's history, and how that inspired Charles Darwin's thinking, not only in geology, but especially, in his conception of the Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection, while describing the rapid extinction of the Great Auk - which was the first bird to be dubbed a "penguin" - in the North Atlantic Ocean along the northernmost coast of North America and Iceland. In the fourth chapter, "The Luck of the Ammonites", she offers an especially lucid account of geologist Walter Alvarez's discovery of the iridium-rich clay at the end of the Cretaceous, leading to the development of the asteroid impact theory for the Cretaceous mass extinction, while also discussing work by such notable invertebrate paleontologists as David Jablonski, David Raup, Jack Sepkoski, and Neil Landman, in noting how the Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, ammonites and other notable terrestrial and marine organisms, was simply a case of bad luck, which she emphasizes further in describing the probable causes for the terminal Ordovician and terminal Permian mass extinctions (Chapter V).

Kolbert devotes two chapters (Chapters VI and VII) to the ongoing "experiment" humanity is performing on the world's oceans, ocean acidification, caused by an excessive increase in carbon dioxide being dumped into them, and noting that it was a likely cause for several of the mass extinctions known from the fossil record. I must commend her for an excellent discussion of the species-area curve known for decades by ecologists, especially through the important research by E. O. Wilson and his colleague Robert MacArthur in the early 1960s (Chapter VIII), as a means of understanding habitat fragmentation (Chapter IX) as a major contributing factor in determining a species' prospects for survival. There are also excellent discussions on how human activity has fostered the unexpected dispersal of animals and plants, creating, in essence a "New Pangea" (Chapter X), that has only accelerated the tempo of the ongoing mass extinction, and the "Pleistocene Overkill" hypothesis (Chapter XI) proposed by geologist Paul S. Martin that has been confirmed, in spectacular fashion, by palynological (fossilized pollen and spores) data from Australia and North America. She describes the extinction of Neanderthals as another, much earlier, example of human-driven extinction (Chapter XII) relying on the notable research by Svante Paabo and his team, noting the importance of the "Out of Africa" theory in explaining Homo sapiens' global dispersal, while also discussing Paabo's "leaky-replacement" hypothesis that accounts for Neanderthals' eventual replacement by Homo sapiens through interbreeding, resulting in hybrids whose descendants include all non-African populations of humanity, contributing between 1 and 4 percent within the genomes of non-African populations, remnants of the Neanderthal genome. In the concluding chapter (Chapter XIII), Kolbert acknowledges she has been amassing evidence demonstrating why the current mass extinction exists, and warning us that "...we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy."
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2014
The Sixth Extinction leads the reader through a series of species in decline, each of which exposes a facet of the environmental changes. Along the way, the reader is introduced to flora and fauna – by botanical name and by an operational description. Like a good detective story, the clues are laid out and scientists who are doing the research explain the consequences. It is hard for the reader not to avoid the conclusion that what began slowly 100,000 years ago is now a warp-speed motion towards overpopulation and resource plunder.
One of the scientists suggested that the rats would be the survivors of the homo sapien extinction. With a step backwards, perhaps the worms at the hydrothermal vents are preparing the seventh edition of fauna for the next world domination and extinction cycle.
Recommended reading for those who believe the world is headed for the cliff - preaching to the choir AND to those who who do not believe - it may be the much needed wake up call.

Gordon Barnes Aurora Ontario Canada
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Anyone who has a least a moderate knowledge about science with find this book a pleasure to read and will not require the accompanied study guide. Ms. Tolbert has a clear and readable ability of describing a somewhat difficult, yet important topic. In a somewhat casual writing approach she takes us with her as she travels throughout the world and examines the various signs of the destruction that mankind is bringing upon the world he claims to love so much. Are we doomed? The author wisely avoids answering this question directly but, rather, poses the possible defeats and/or victories which may lie before us. I highly recommend this book as being part of both a study in paleontology and the future of global warming trends.......
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2014
This is not dry statistical stuff, it's fascinating, almost conversational. She doesn't talk about evidence, she tracks it down around the world. In Panama she visits a sanctuary for the Panamanian golden frogs, which can no longer survive in the wild due to Bd, a fungus that humans have unwittingly spread around the world. At a natural carbon dioxide vent in the Mediterranean Kolbert describes the lesions in the shells of limpets, and other effects of acidification. The Sixth Extinction lays out the devastating effects that humans are having on Planet Earth with brilliant clarity.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2014
An important book. Extremely well written. I recommend that everyone should read this book. I'm looking forward to more from this author.
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on August 15, 2015
This is an excellent account of the current state of the world with respect to the rapid disappearance of millions of species. It argues convincingly that Homo sapiens (whom I prefer to think of as Homo stupidus) is responsible for the largest extinction of species in the history of planet Earth. The author is not a scientist, but she has researched her subject thoroughly and has gone to relevant sites and consulted experts in the field around the globe to verify the evidence. There are chapters on the oceans and the forests, on apes, birds and ammonites., a.o. The author writes lucidly and shows that our biosphere is suffering a catastrophe worse than that caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The book well deserves its Pulitzer Prize. It should be an eye-opener to all who are still in denial about the calamitous climate change that is now impacting our habitat and that is largely caused by our contemptuous treatment of the environment and of our fellow creatures. I recommend the book highly.
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on March 5, 2015
Elizabeth Kolbert has written a timely account of a tragedy which will no doubt occur throughout this century. She shows how humans have caused species extinctions in the prehistoric past, in the present and in the future. Much of the damage has happened unintentionally as globetrotting humans introduce invasive species to places where new kids on the block overrun the natives.

Kolbert interviews countless biologists fighting to understand and preserve endangered plants and animals. The biologists are dedicated and inventive. They accomplish miracles on shoestring budgets. The funding available for ecologists is mere peanuts compared to the huge subsidies we grant carmakers, oil companies and investment bankers. The influx of carbon is making the oceans more acidic. Not only will we witness the death of coral reefs in the coming decades, many species of shell fish will decline or disappear.

My only complaint is with the publisher which has made no effort to present this wonderful book for E-book readers. Established publishers treat their eBook offerings as an added cash cow. The terms of this book could have been indexed and defined as endnotes, rather than the useless index list given at the end. Why should we pay so much for so little effort?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2014
Outstanding explanation of the deplorable path humanity is on for not just the standard human-influenced global warming, but several additonal reasons. ... and we think we'er so smart.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2014
Just amazing... wasn't expecting that much of quality.... aarrived in time... i am so pleased with the book quality and the service as well... thank you
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2014
Good information, well written, actual, very interesting science that can help people understand why we should worry about our planet.
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