This is as much an intellectual history of the concept of extinction as a first-hand account of what she calls the sixth major extinction event in the world’s history.
She explains how the French naturalist Georges Cuvier established extinction as a fact in the early 19th century; why Darwin, despite the slaughter of the auk in his lifetime, believed only “slow-acting and still-existing causes,” not humans, cause extinction; and how, in the 1970s, Luis and Walter Alvarez showed that an asteroid struck the planet 65 million years ago, killing off three-quarters of all plant and animal species — including all non-avian dinosaurs — in the blink of an eye.
Kolbert airs topics we wish no one had to write about — global warming, ocean acidification, habitat fragmentation, the human-introduced fungi that are killing bats in North America and amphibians across the world — but does so by telling the stories of people who have devoted their lives to such luckless creatures as the Panamanian golden frog, the Sumatran rhino, the little brown bat, and the Hawaiian Crow.
Two researchers will be of particular interest to birders. One is Miles Silman, a forest ecologist from Wake Forest University who not only showed that global warming was driving trees and other plants up a mountain in Peru’s Manú National Park but was also able to quantify how fast they were moving. The other is biologist Tom Lovejoy. In the deforested Brazilian Amazon, he created a bizarre-looking collection of perfectly square forest reserves, gated green islands in a sea of scrub, and demonstrated how fragmentation causes extinction by inevitably making recolonization difficult, if not impossible.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt and Co., 2014, 336 pages, $28, hardcover, $12.99, ebook.
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A version of this review appeared in our June 2014 issue. Subscribe.