The Sixth Extinction

The Sixth Extinction

An Unnatural History

Book - 2014
Average Rating:
Rate this:

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction , two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

Publisher: New York : Henry Holt and Co., [2014]
ISBN: 9780805092998
Characteristics: 319 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
May 27, 2018

The Sixth Extinction is a terrifying and exhilarating look at all the ways we're killing the species we share this planet with. She weaves modern examples and the history of science and extinctions to paint the picture of just how bad the outlook is.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. A fair warning, though: it doesn't have a happy ending.

Mar 11, 2018

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is a loosely connected compilation of essays and field notes written by Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer of The New Yorker. Each of the thirteen chapters tracks the extinction or near extinction of a species, and this smattering of evidence wanders into the assumption that mass extinction on planet Earth is again underway for the sixth time.

If you are thinking that climate change (aka global warming) will trigger the sixth extinction, you will have to read to page 102 to find the first mention of this threat. Later, in Chapter VIII, Kolbert carves out space to pad a declaration by Chris Thomas, a biologist at the University of York in England: "Climate change alone 'is unlikely to generate a mass extinction as large as one of the Big Five.'" He estimates that the extinction would extend to "around 10 or more percent of species."

As for the deadly results of pathogens, they are examined cursorily in just three pages. There is apparently no evidence that pathogens will threaten higher life forms, including Homo sapiens, otherwise known as the human organism.

This leaves acidification of the oceans as the likely trigger for mass extinction. Kolbert probes this topic in Chapter VI, The Sea Around Us, by citing a field trip she had at Castello Aragonese, a tiny island west of Naples, Italy. Here she makes this announcement: "Carbon dioxide has many interesting properties, one of which is that it dissolves in water to form an acid." (It will be helpful to remember that burning fossil fuels produces CO2.) Kolbert's guide is marine biologist Jason Hall-Spencer. Before the chapter closes, Kolbert offers this lament from Hall-Spencer: "Unfortunately, the biggest tipping point, the one at which the ecosystem [of the waters off the coast of Italy] starts to crash, is mean pH 7.8, which is what we're expecting to happen by 2100."

After Kolbert dropped this bombshell that life in the waters of the Mediterranean will crash by the end of this century—that's 82 years from now!—you'd think she would examine this part of the world with further scientific scrutiny but no, this didn't happen. Hey, if the Mediterranean is about to crash, then the Atlantic Ocean would soon follow, and you can kiss the Pacific goodbye. Hello, are there any marine biologists who understand the domino theory?

Kolbert must leave the dying Mediterranean because she must resume her travelogue. In the next chapter, she visits a speck of an island off the coast of Australia to study the effects of acidification on the reef that surrounds the island. In the chapter after that, she visits a mountainous region where the trees have been "moving upslope," which is to say, the higher reaches of the mountain, which had been too cold for the trees to grow, had warmed up and thus the seeds from the trees have taken root at higher elevations.

This jumble in presenting The Sixth Extinction is maddening. The subject never develops except by implication. Apparently the editors at Henry Holt and Company thought the author's travelogue would somehow validate the title of the book. The title, as terrific as it is, trolls with unbaited hooks.

Dear Elizabeth Kolbert and editors, you don't inform the reader that the Mediterranean is dying, then move on to explore a failing reef at an island, which "is less than 750 feet long and 500 feet wide." Wake up! The state of life on Earth has caught up to the science fiction that has shown how easy it is to wipe out life forms on the planet. Once the Mediterranean fails, it's all over!

The year 2100 may be too soon to write the obituary for life on this planet, but given the lack of stewardship among humankind for Earth and her countless families, the extinction of nearly all life appears certain.

Apr 14, 2017

This book is about the possible 6th mass species extinction which will be caused by global warming and ocean acidification. There are good perspectives here on the previous 5 mass extinctions and what is going on now and may happen in the future. I concluded that while extinctions of species are quite common now and historically, it is the rate of change that is being brought on by global warming that could cause the 6th mass extinction. A good read with some humor injected here and there.

Feb 14, 2017

“Timeline of extinctions in the Holocene”
“What We've Lost: Species Extinction Time Line”

Jan 03, 2017

Within this century, man-made climate change may eliminate half of all living species on Earth. Elizabeth Kolbert examines the sixth mass extinction from the front lines: the Amazonian rainforest, the Great Barrier Reef, the Arctic ice cap. It’s a sobering read about the magnitude of our impact—and the catastrophic consequences that we, unlike the asteroid that caused the last mass extinction (of the dinosaurs), have the ability to alter.
Total reading time: 5 hours
How to read it: Before heading to a dinner party where you explain why you bike to work now

Aug 28, 2016

Fantastic listen (in audio book format). I thought it would be a snoozer, but the arguments were precise and well-reasoned. A wake-up call for all human-kind.

Aug 27, 2016

I can see how some reviewers felt this book was choppy, or perhaps without focus, but as an uninitiated layperson w/ regards to technical and historical scientific perspectives, I found this book to be absolutely riveting. Could not put it down and I found myself bringing up things that I read with coworkers and friends regularly. Really loved it.

A unique perspective that traces historical extinctions along with the premise that we are living in an extinction period at the moment.

Mar 05, 2016

The content of this book was certainly interesting but I thought the structure was choppy, messy and lacked focus. Even so, I picked up some thought provoking information and generally enjoyed it.

Jan 01, 2016

Very interesting. The author has a wonderful way of keeping it interesting for the layperson and even adds a little humor in the way she writes. Helps explain how we humans do have an effect on other living things and what we must do to make a difference.

View All Comments


Add a Quote
Sep 30, 2015

“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”


Add Age Suitability

There are no ages for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number

Subject Headings


Find it at PDL

To Top