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Are We Already Living Through The Sixth Mass Extinction?

Take a deeper look into a work on humanity's impact on the world, which Stanford University considers a must-read for its incoming undergraduate class.
by Saba Khalid | Aug 18 2017

With Fall Quarter about to start at Stanford, new undergrads are beginning to arrive in Palo Alto having started their studies even before setting foot on campus. Besides familiarizing themselves with their way around the school and the San Francisco Bay Area, the new students at this world-renowned institution had received their first assignment months earlier.

Every year, the university publishes three must-read books as part of the New Student Orientation Program. This year, Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor in the Earth Sciences department, themed the list around Sustainability & Equity: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing; Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones; and the only nonfiction title, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

With the key insights from Kolbert’s book we’ve put together, you’ll see why one of the world’s most prestigious universities considers this a crucial work in educating its students.

What will I find inside?

Kolbert outlines history’s five major extinction events, using the dinosaurs as a case study. She guides the reader through the timelines of these events. She also argues that we are in the midst of a sixth triggered by human activity. One of the contemporary examples she writes about is the plight of the polar bear, asking whether Homo sapiens‘s impact has foreshortened the timeline of this new and ongoing extinction.

With new data showing how the background extinction rate of species is being driven upward by leaps and bounds, understanding how this change occurs has become ever more important. Kolbert explores how deforestation, toxic dumping, and industrialization have catalyzed this new die-off. She also looks at how modern human transportation networks and the resources that power them contribute. However, she also makes the case for our ability to avoid this seeming inevitability.

Who Wrote the Book?

Elizabeth Kolbert has written articles, political profiles, editorials, and book reviews for publications including The New Yorker, where she has been a Staff Writer since 1999; The New York Times; and Time magazine. In 2015, her work on The Sixth Extinction earned her the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

3 Things You Should Know

Impact Theory

Kolbert’s section in the book about the extinction of the dinosaurs looks at the Impact Theory initially proposed by Walter Alvarez. Alvarez began investigating the topic in the late 1970s and early 1980s after trying to determine what caused them to die out.

After finding elevated levels of iridium in rock samples from the same time as the end of the dinosaurs, Alvarez formed the hypothesis that an asteroid nearly seven miles (10 km) wide must have struck the Earth. The object would have had to be so large to throw enough material into the air to cause such lethal climate change and account for the amount of iridium Alvarez had discovered.

Theory of Drift

As paleontology developed as a scientific field, researchers shared their findings and began to realize they were digging up fossils of the same species on continents thousands of miles apart. Combining these discoveries with additional evidence from geologists, the theory of plate tectonics explained this by showing how at one point all the continents had been a single landmass the scientists called Pangea.

Through the modes of connection humanity has created, a new type of Pangea has been created. This has impacted species’ migration patterns and routes and introduced non-native flora and fauna to habitats with sometimes devastating results.

Neanderthals: A Curiosity?

Much like the wooly mammoth, Neanderthals did not die out until their anthropoid cousins, anatomically modern humans, appeared in the same environments. Despite the evidence of numerous qualities they shared with humans, Neanderthals were unable to survive as a distinct species alongside humans.

A Smart Fact from The Sixth Extinction

Humans’ success has been the direct result of our willingness to take risks and our adaptability to new environments. Neanderthals remained in Eurasia, evolving specialties to help them deal with the climate they found there. Modern humans combined technological prowess with an innate drive for risk-taking that took them across the continents.

A Fun Fact from The Sixth Extinction (also Neanderthal-related)

When anatomically modern humans undertook spreading across the globe, they encountered other hominids such as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. Modern humans were able to interbreed with them, and as a result, you likely carry some Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA. Maybe as much as 5 or 6 percent depending on where you’re from!

One Big Takeaway

Humans have caused damage to the environment for as long as there have been humans. The difference between our current era and previous ones lies in the scale and speed of this destruction. If we do not act individually and collectively to change our habits, we too face the reality of extinction like many species before us.

Grab a copy of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and read it in full, or get a more thorough breakdown of this book and finish it in about 15 minutes with Blinkist.

Learn More

Questions about the changes in our ecosystems are some of the most critical we face today, and we’ve devoted a few additional articles to the topic:

The Burning Question: What This Summer’s Heatwave Says About Climate Change

8 Books To Explain Why Climate Change is Happening and What You Can Do About It

Watergate: How You Can Help Prevent The Next Cape Town Crisis

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