Life on Earth Has Suffered Five Known Mass Extinction Events. Has Mankind Triggered the Sixth?

Elizabeth Kolbert's warm, engaging clarity and use of anecdotes amid the data humanises her argument without softening the science of The Sixth Extinction.

This summer, if certain Hollywood producers get their wish, audiences will thrill once again to the spectacle of seven-ton theropods attacking screaming modern day human beings. Jurassic World, as the noun of the title suggests, will be a much larger prospect than the blockbusting original movie from 22 years ago. Back then, it was exciting enough to see mere dinosaurs being brought to life by the godlike ingenuity of man. Now we’re expecting so much more from our cinematic Prometheuses.

The Big Bad (and it is a very Big Bad) of this year’s installment will be a creature that has been deliberately adjusted at the genetic level to be fiercer, smarter and flat out more dangerous than any run-of-the-mill beastie could be. And why? Because, fictionally of course, we can. Audiences may flock (or swarm, depending on their taxonomy) to cinemas to see the tyrannosaurs and velociraptors, but the real focus (and real villain) of the Jurassic franchise is man.

It’s always man. Admittedly, there are very few triceratops capable of intuiting allegorical messages in popular fiction, but all the same, our insistence on an anthropocentric viewpoint is interesting and not limited to the scientists of the silver screen. For some time now, geologists and their colleagues in related disciplines have been debating the merits of the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe the current geochronological epoch. It’s not without controversy. Formally, we’re in the Holocene, or ‘entirely recent’ epoch, which, in human terms, can be described as covering the time from the middle Stone Age. No such conversion is required for the Anthropocene, which is entirely in human terms. We humans place ourselves at the centre of things once again. Hence the controversy.

Earlier epochs are named for their relative position in time, or for some feature of the rocks that hold their secrets. It’s a reasonably big deal. For homo sapiens to warrant labeling an entire epoch, we would need to make a significant impact on it and it is this impact that proponents of the Anthropocene cite in support of their claim. A clue to its nature may be found in the timing of the commencement of the putative epoch: the advent of the industrial revolution. The chief impact of the Anthropocene is destructive. Adjectivally repurposed it is not merely the Anthropocene Epoch but the Anthropocene Extinction Event.

There are five widely-recognised mass extinction events, the Ordovician–Silurian, the Late Devonian, the Permian–Triassic, the Triassic–Jurassic and the Cretaceous–Paleogene. Each one saw the end of at least 50 percent of the existing biota. Their causes are unclear but significant: global temperature changes, variations in sea levels, large asteroid impacts. If the Anthropocene is to reach anything like that standard, there’s a whole lot of unreplenishable death on the horizon.

They don’t happen very often. The most recent of the ‘Big Five’ extinction events, the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary that put paid to the remaining dinosaurs, took place around 66 million years ago, long before any human beings were around to witness it. The proposed Anthropocene event is the first, and possibly the only mass extinction, that we’re able to see happening.

Of course, no one can actually ‘see’ an extinction event. Paradoxically, given the scale of their impact, they remain too subtle to be discerned by the the human eye. They do, however, leave clues. Clustered corpses of Panamanian tree frogs, the varied ground height of trees, the spread of calicfiers in marine environments, these are seemingly small events of interest to highly specialized scientists but they are potentially of colossal significance to all of us. These disparate occurrences are difficult to connect to one another, let alone to a single causal factor, not least because measuring them requires such an array of separate scientific disciplines.

It helps to have a guide to navigate the patterns, and it is as such that Elizabeth Kolbert presents herself in The Sixth Extinction, which operates as a work of scientific reportage. Quite deliberately eschewing the challenging scientific language of most geological discussion, Kolbert falls back on her journalistic experience (the expression ‘burying the lede’ occurs on page seven) and addresses these moments of subtle gargantitude in the manner of a lengthy and detailed news report. With her journalist’s eye for a story, our intrepid author wanders the globe from Manaus in Amazonas to Dob’s Linn in Scotland and the Great Barrier Reef of the coast of Australia in search of evidence of the mortal process. Somewhat scarily, she finds plenty of it.

Through our guide’s eyes we watch parades of ants, examine the tell-tale striations in rocks and visit with Neanderthals, whose reputations have shifted and changed in the perspective of homo sapiens. We hear the stark warnings of scientists who have spent decades swimming, digging and discovering, and who have emerged with foreboding news. The argument is made piecemeal, like the science, with the steady accrual of evidence that supports the central claim.

It’s a challenging subject but Kolbert’s style is fresh, lively and an utter joy to read, even in the face of such alarming dispatches. Her admiration for the panoply of biologists, geologists and stratigraphers is made plain by the humanising biographical sketches that she offers and by her ceding of the narrative to them. Striking a fine balance between controlling the narrative and creating space for it to emerge, Kolbert displays a fine instinct for letting the experts speak knowledgeably but without stumbling into impenetrable jungles of data. Her warm, engaging clarity and use of anecdotes amid the data humanises her argument without softening the science and suggests that reflections on millions of years of geological and biological development are viable topics for popular consumption — even away from the multiplexes.

RATING 7 / 10