I’ve been reading The Sixth Extinction this month with Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Book Club, and it has been fun and fascinating. This is a nonfiction book I can get behind.
I liked this book so much that sometimes I picked it up instead of my fiction. That’s saying something for me. But, the problem is there is so much good stuff crammed into the book that now I feel at a loss for what to concentrate on. The premise of the book is to outline the ways in which humans are creating the next big extinction event (there have been 5 previously). Visit My Book Strings to read a concise and thoughtful review about how we humans are destroying ourselves. Read the rest of my review to enjoy a long and rambling account of as many things as I could reasonable fit into one post without it taking the rest of my life.
What I loved reading about:
Every chapter focuses on an example of an animal or plant that is either extinct or that is presently being studied or watched as it heads toward extinction. Over the years, I have read about or heard about a lot of living things, but I still found the information presented in this book fascinating. Here’s just a taste:
- There were frogs that carried their eggs in their stomachs and gave birth through their mouths.
- Spring peepers in North America survive the winter by freezing solid like popsicles.
- The trunks of proboscideans (elephants, etc.) evolved separately 5 times.
- The last pair of Great Auks were killed on Eldey Island off the coast of Iceland in 1844.
- Thousands, maybe millions, of species rely on the coral reefs which are dying off at a rapid rate and are not expected to still be around in another 50 years due to significantly increasing carbon levels in the oceans.
- Canada’s boreal forest makes up about a quarter of the forest area left on earth, but only has 20 species of trees. In Peru, there are 1,035 known tree species.
- Dandelions, earthworms, Queen Anne’s Lace, plantains, burdock, and zebra mussels are all invasive species (that have done very well).
- Between winter 2007 and winter 2013, a fungus called white-nose had spread to 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces, killing off more than 6 million bats.
- At clubs in Southeast Asia, powdered rhino horns are snorted like cocaine.
- Humans are thought to be the main reason for the extinction of all mega fauna; in the past (mammoths, mastodons, and even Neanderthals), and in the present (elephants, rhinos, and apes).
Over the years, scientists have learned from patterns in the layers of rock and soil, the history of our planet, and the times and significance of the extinctions that have taken place. By looking at the fossils, they can determine some of the species that have made it through, and some that have died out. This is amazing when you think about it. Species that had been doing well for millions of years are suddenly not seen again in the records, which causes us to give some thought to the unpredictability of life on earth.
I love reading about the parade of scientists who helped us get to where we are today.
- Aristotle, Pliny, Linnaeus.
- Cuvier, who confirmed the extinction of mastodons and started a whole new way of looking at life – that there could be such a thing as extinction. Cuvier supported cataclysm and opposed evolution.
- Lamarck, who was an evolutionist, but didn’t believe in extinction.
- Lyell, the uniformitarian who coined the phrase “The present is the key to the past”.
- Darwin, whose Theory of Natural Selection also explains the vanishing of species.
- Alfred Newton, who advocated for a ban on hunting birds during breeding season, which resulted in one of the first laws aimed at wildlife protection.
- Walter Alvarez, who discovered the first traces of the asteroid that is thought to have ended the Cretaceous period.
- Svante Paabo, who is attempting to map the DNA of Neanderthals and other early hominids. He wants to know how we differ. One of the most basic differences between us is that Neanderthals stopped while humans kept going; across bodies of water and now into space. What gives us that drive?
- The many scientists dedicated to saving the future of the planet, and who helped contribute to the research involved in writing this book.
What this book had me asking myself:
- If this extinction thing has happened many times before, with some organisms surviving and living on after the extinction event, is extinction itself really as bad as we think it is?
- Are humans just another species on the planet who have been successful and outlived other species (natural selection), or are we separate from it all?
- If the world is really going to Hell in a handbasket, is there anything we can do? The book suggests that many things are at the point of no return. But, there are people out there doing crazy things to save the animals. I used to think this was heroic and necessary, but maybe it’s just a waste of time?
- Whatever that ‘drive’ is that differentiates us from other organisms is probably the same quality that has us destroying ourselves. How can we use it to help ourselves instead?
There is every reason to believe that if humans had not arrived on the scene, the Neanderthals would be there still, along with the wild horses and the woolly rhinos. With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it. A tiny set of genetic variations divides us from the Neanderthals, but that has made all the difference.
Some other passages that gave me with food for thought:
Everyone (and everything) alive today is descended from an organism that somehow survived the impact. (at the end of the Cretaceous)
It is the rate of CO2 release that makes the current great experiment so geologically unusual, and quite probably unprecedented in earth history.
The reason I’d come to the Great Barrier Reef was to write about the scale of human influence. And yet Schneider and I seemed very, very small in the unbroken dark.
Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that proceeded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly.
One of the defining features of the Anthropocene (now) 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.
People have to have hope… It’s what keeps us going.
It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.
If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an axe, or better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.