Weekend Book Picks: The Sixth Extinction

September 1, 2014

A Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). Photo by Flickr user Willem v Strien through a Creative Commons license.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. By Elizabeth Kolbert. 2014. Henry Holt and Co.
319 pages.

Who are the best environment writers working today? David Quammen? E. O. Wilson? New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert is definitely on the short list.

Kolbert’s new book makes the case for how the sixth wave of mass extinctions on earth is fundamentally different from the previous five. One species has succeeded so spectacularly that it has changed the world forever: Us.

“Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.”

The book covers a number of pending and actual extinctions such as the Sumatran rhino (related to the woolly rhinos of old) and Great auks (a penguin-like bird killed off in Iceland in 1821), but the best chapter is on Homo neanderthalensis.

This species appears to have evolved in Europe and is one of the proto humans that Homo sapiens drove to extinction. But its genes live on.

“Modern humans arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago, and again and again, the archaeological record shows, as soon as they made their way to a region where Neanderthals were living, the Neanderthals in that region disappeared. Perhaps the Neanderthals were actively pursued, or perhaps they were just outcompeted. Either way their decline fits the familiar pattern, with one important (and unsettling) difference. Before humans finally did in the Neanderthals, they had sex with them. As a result of this interaction, most people alive today are slightly — up to four percent — Neanderthal.”

How we know about this four percent is one of the best stories in a well-written and well-researched book.

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