The Sixth Extinction

Updated: November 22, 2020

Elizabeth Kolbert's book urgently forces us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human as we go through the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Favorite quotes from the book:

In times of extreme stress, the whole concept of fitness, at least in a Darwinian sense, loses its meaning: how could a creature be adapted, either well or ill, for conditions it has never before encountered in its entire evolutionary history?

“Time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.”

The way corals change the world — with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations — might be likened to the way that humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other creatures, corals support them.

“In other kinds of human disturbances there were always spatial refuges. Climate affects everything.”

“When you find one thing that depends on something else that, in turn, depends on something else, the whole series of interactions depends on constancy...”

Before humans emerged on the scene, being large and slow to reproduce was a highly successful strategy, and outsized creatures dominated the planet. Then, in what amounts to a geologic instant, this strategy became a loser's game.

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.

With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it. A tiny set of genetic variations divides us from the Neanderthals, but that has made all the difference.

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 forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.