Will We Be the Next Extinction?

"The Sixth Extinction is a dense, scientific text... [proving] fascinating for those who are willing to take a highly technical journey through the history of extinction."

In The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History, author Elizabeth Kolbert paints a frightening future for our planet. Humans, she predicts, may become the sixth extinction following five major extinctions over the last half billion years.

This isn't Kolbert's first venture into the science of the fate of our species and planet. A staff writer at the New Yorker, in her earlier book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (Bloomsbury, 2006), she waves a red flag about the dangers of climate change.

In the Sixth Extinction, she furthers her theory. The body of the book is devoted to the fates of various creatures on land and sea, as well as the health of our planet. She takes the reader through various extinctions of critters, large and small, from the Mastodon's from 11,000 years ago to as recent as the Golden Toad not seen since 1989.

Each subject is examined, analyzed and measured for the success or failure of an organism to live. Behavior is a key element here. The causes of extinction vary for insects, mammals and vegetation. Kolbert details the demise with heavy annotation from published research.

Not surprising, climate and temperature play a necessary role to survival. It's all about adaptation to climate and creating a habitat to endure the changes. In The Sixth Extinction, she declares: "Any specie that couldn't cope with temperature variation is of no concern to us because they no longer exist. Only organisms that can adapt to variation in climate survive."

When she gets to the subject of early modern man, she describes us as a specie that doesn't have a name, yet has the capacity to name things. The origin of Homo sapiens is a mosaic of complexity. While modern man, as we know it, she says, arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago, we may go the way of the Dodo bird if we don't change our ways.

Our younger specie was not particularly strong or fast, but ever more resourceful. Possessing these traits it was able to adapt to changing weather and hunting conditions. Descended from a common ancestry, Hominids, early ancestors of humans, began in Africa, split off and wandered to various geographies the globe. Some spread north to into Eastern Europe taming, clamming and conquering everything along the way. Man was a step ahead of its nearest relative, the Neanderthal.

"On reaching Europe, they encounter creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living on the continent far longer."

Kolbert maintains that modern humans overlapped with the Neanderthal for 10,000 years. The Neanderthal vanished roughly 30,000 years ago. During the overlap, there was much intermingling. Enough so that possibly up to four percent of the people alive today are slightly Neanderthal. The theory is that modern man was just too much competition for its nearest kin, and the Neanderthal eventually died out.

The argument whether man will survive extinction is still open, according to Kolbert. She raises -- and quotes -- competing arguments on the hope and despair of our ability to conquer our own worst behavior.

The Sixth Extinction is a dense, scientific text. It takes a commitment and interest in the most minute of details to absorb this level of research, but proves fascinating for those who are willing to take a highly technical journey through the history of extinction.


Geri Spieler is the award-winning author of Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She is also a member of the National Books Critics Circle.