October 14, 2017

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History - Elizabeth Kolbert - Book Review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I grew up in a Sub Urban area with lot of vegetation around. As I grew up, the place was just being swallowed up by more and more houses. One of the hassles of the vegetation was that we used to get lot of uninvited guests to our home - weird insects, bats, worms and scary Snakes. One of the key lessons I was taught as a kid was what to do to protect myself from Snakes. I vividly remember a few six foot long venomous Vipers that we spotted in home. Today, the area has completely become an Urban jungle. Snakes have disappeared with more houses. We are happy with the fact that we need not worry about those snakes. But what has happened to those snakes? How has the loss of habitat affected them? What about other harmless insects and bats? A few endemic species could have disappeared. All because of us - Human Beings. This book, 'The Sixth Extinction' is exactly about this. How Human Beings are causing the sixth major extinction event of the world and how it is happening right in front of our eyes.

I was looking for a book in the last minute before my flight. I randomly came across this book on Amazon and decided to give it a shot. One thing I worried was that the book would turn out to be one of those preachy materials on the ill effects of Global Warming. This book by Elizabeth Kolbert is exactly that, but the author conveys it with a well strung research, tales and subtlety. Being a Journalist, the author has done justice to the job by spending a lot of time with fossil collectors, museum directors, biologists and conservationists to bring home the point of how we (Human Beings) are destroying the planet.

While unsurprisingly, the major cause of the Sixth Extinction is Global Warming, the author also points out to other strong factors that weigh in - Fragmentation of Habitats due to developing Urban Clusters and Forced movement of Species across continents, both knowingly and accidentally.

The author starts the book with how various species of Frogs have started disappearing in the recent years across Latin America. Frogs have been one of the resilient species on the face of earth. They have survived for the past 250 million years. Now, they have suddenly started disappearing. After a lot of research, it has been identified that Chytrid Fungus causes this. Chytrid Fungus is not a native found in Latin America. Humans have introduced it somehow and they have started playing havoc. These species that causes havoc are known as Invasive Species. Evolution would have equipped the frogs to save itself from known dangers, but then it never came across this Fungus in the past millions of years. Across the years as humans started travelling, we have introduced so many of these species.

What I really loved about the book was the abundance of information provided -

  1. How Fossils were identified and unearthed in the 19th century and the efforts of Georges Cuvier and Charles Darwin identifying the fossils and establishing the first theories on Extinction of Species.
  2. The relationship between increasing latitude and increasing number of species. While in the poles, there is nearly no diversity, there is abundance of diversity near the equator given the favorable climate.
  3. How Global Warming is making the Ocean more and more acidic - Water absorbs excess Carbon Di Oxide to form Carbonic Acid. This in turn affects the calcification process required to form Coral Reefs which are the base of Ocean Life.
  4. How it is not only animals that move, but also trees with change in temperatures. Some trees expand itself at a rapid rate through pollination and in the process negates the space for less invasive species.
  5. How the chances of a species survival reduces with reducing habitat and fragmentation. Certain species are endemic to Islands and they often disappear soon. The same happen with increasing Urbanization.

It has been established that we are not the only Human Species that has lived in this planet - one of the key human species that has lived alongside us is Neanderthals. It has been established that on an average nearly 4% of our DNA contains Neanderthal DNA. It has also been established that Human Beings or Homo Sapiens in specific were the main cause of Neanderthals extinction. After a long struggle, Neanderthal's DNA has been established. They are almost same as that of us. But over the years, some change has happened that has made us so dangerous. Some tiny little Gene has made us so superior to the rest of the species - that we have even killed our sister species. So, the author wonders what is this 'Mad Gene' that causes that change.

The author finally concludes with a positive note by capturing some of the super human efforts taken by conservationists to protect the few endangered species and says our hope is that. While, we have singly killed all those species, we also go in great length to protect the remaining species. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have strict Biosecurity laws to protect their native species. If the Mad Gene signifies despair, the same Mad Gene signifies Hope as well.

On the flip side, I found that the author had used too many Biological names for the Species which became too tough to follow at a point. I would rate this as one of the best books I have read about our planet and the species that live on it. Having read Yuval Noah Harrari's 'Sapiens' augmented this book very well, as Sapiens had established how we became the conquering deadly species that we are.

If you have a little iota of guilt that we cause to the environment, this book is a must read!

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