Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

By Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014

Review is copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2015.08.15

Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Year: 2014 (Mine was 2015 trade paperback)
Publisher: Picador
ISBN 978-1-250-06218-5
View It On Amazon
Wikipedia page


Kolbert won the Pulitzer Prize (general nonfiction) in 2015, for this book, which is intended for the general reader rather than a scientific audience. A journalist (New York Times, The New Yorker), Kolbert relates in a clear style her observations around the world, including well-cited facts, interviews with scientists, and the increasingly held belief that humans are currently causing the sixth mass extinction of species.

What I Liked Least About It

I found very little to dislike about this book. If I must nitpick (and I must), I found it a bit disorienting when the narrative switches back and forth, without warning, between (1) listing facts/history, (2) interviews with scientists, and (3) her own personal experiences. I understand why she did it — to keep the reader engaged — but my personal preference would be more separation between these sections.

Historical Context

Even as I read the book (July and August of 2015), I kept seeing current news stories confirming its truths — (1) that we’re now living through the sixth mass extinction of species, (2) that we (humans) are causing it, both directly and indirectly, and (3) that we might be among its victims.

Some examples:

Scientists Build Case For ‘Sixth Extinction”... And Say It Could Kill Us (NBC, June 2015)
Sixth Mass Extinction Could Wipe Out Humans, Researchers Warn (Tech Times, August 2015)
Humans Will Not Be Spared In Sixth Mass Extinction (Yahoo! News, August 2015)
In The Sixth Major Global Extiction, We Are The Asteroid (The Weather Network, August 2015)

What I Liked Most About It

Perhaps insanely, what I liked most about this book was its weight. Unlike many I’ve read, the book was very light. As someone who reads every day, the weight of a book can make a huge difference.

As for the content, I enjoyed Kolbert’s easy-to-read style. I never found myself rereading a sentence to wonder what she meant.

I also liked that she steadily and methodically built the case, starting with the then-mysterious mass extinction of frogs and amphibians in Central America, which turned out to be due to a fungus that spread throughout the world to other creatures only because humans transported it via ships and airplanes.

Another huge bonus for me was the history of the very idea of extinction. Until the late 1700s, the majority of scientists didn’t even believe species could go extinct. Kolbert spent the better part of a chapter covering the explosion of discovery in the 1700s and 1800s that included bones of mammoths, mastedons, dinosaurs, and numerous other creatures, not to mention numerous species that were going extinct at that very time, all due to mankind’s intervention.

Further Notes

Until that time period (1800s), human-caused extinctions were mostly due to overhunting and ignorance of how species came about. Perhaps ironically, it was about that time that humans began to burn in earnest the fossil fuels that have now filled our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, eventually causing the climate change that is now killing off many other species or forcing them to stay on the move — in search of acceptable living space. Even more ironically, we’ve spent the better part of the last century destroying habitats, polluting rivers and oceans and groundwater, carving up the landscape with our cities and highways, bulldozing millions of acres of jungle and forest, transporting invasive species to habitats they otherwise couldn’t reach, and — in many parts of the world — continuing to overhunt.
“A species that needs to migrate to keep up with rising temperatures, but is trapped in a forest fragment — even a very large fragment — is a species that isn’t likely to make it. One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers — roads, clear-cuts, cities — that prevent them from doing so.”

—page 189


Previous known mass extictions were caused by asteroid collisions, climate change, and even unknown events. Kolbert presents an airtight case that the current ongoing mass extinction is caused by humans, both knowingly and unknowingly. Some of the mass extinction events of the past took place over “geological time”, meaning millions of years. The current one is relatively instant, just hundreds of years — unless you attribute, as Kolbert does, the extinction of megafauna to humans as well, which means we’ve been doing this for a few thousand years. This is still a relatively short time period. Almost all known extinctions of the current geological era can be attributed to the rise of homo sapiens.

I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially to anyone who is still not convinced that humanity needs to change its ways.

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