Planet Earth is four and a half billion years old. It is not, as creationists would have us believe, only 6000 years old, and humans did not coexist with dinosaurs. Evolution is a scientific fact, not what those same Bible literalists and other religions fundamentalists, all of whom fail to understand the scientific (as opposed to the popular) meaning of the word, theory, would have us believe. And while Earth continues to grow older, evolution continues to occur. But there is a problem, and it is that evolution is happening at an ever increasing rate. And therein lies the core concern of Elizabeth Kolbert’s as developed in her extraordinary book, The Sixth Extinction.
In a meticulously researched, scientifically sound, and yet eminently readable work, Ms. Kolbert tells a story of evolution and five previous large scale extinctions of species on the planet. Through a series of personal adventures with a variety of scientists expert in differing disciplines, she provides both an informative view of what has gone before the age of humankind and then, having set the stage, she looks in depth at what is happening now, in an epoch increasingly being recognized as the “anthropocene”.
Her well supported thesis is that humans have had and continue to have major impact upon evolution. Through the often inadvertent and sometimes intentional redistribution of species in such diverse ways as spreading them in the ballast tanks of ships to befouling our atmosphere and oceans and poaching endangered game in ways that change local ecologies to favor or disfavor species, we are hastening the process of evolution on Earth. And no small part of what we are doing is accelerating the rate at which myriad species are becoming extinct: the sixth extinction.
It is remarkable that her grim tale of planetary transformation is told with wit and in lay terms, making the book both entertaining and frightening while always enlightening. The take-away from all this? Ms. Kolbert doesn’t preach but, rather, she simply lays out the facts, leaving us to decide. For this reviewer, the lesson is clear. Unless steps are taken to alter major aspects of human activity, we may be creating a dismal fate for our own species as well as others, many already severely affected.
There are those who believe that we need not do anything about all this, that their God will intervene either to remedy the situation or effect the “Rapture” for the deserving. But even these folks must admit that they don’t have a timetable for their hoped for salvation, and this ought to motivate them to join forces with the rest of us to safeguard Earth for succeeding generations. Unfortunately, however, human behavior to date does not bode well for positive change.
Ms. Kolbert has accomplished an extraordinary feat with her book. Rarely have the prospects for a fatal future been related in such a witty and engaging manner.