Elizabeth Kolbert sizes up the chilling prospects for a major extinction event
Robin Marantz Henig
The Sixth Extinction:
An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt and Co.
$28.00 List Price
THE DINOSAURS WERE THE LEAST OF IT. They, together with other “charismatic megafauna,” went extinct during a massive global event at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-six million years ago—but by then there had already been four other mass extinctions, dating as far back as the Ordovician period, 444 million years ago. And now, according to New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, we’re heading for another: a sixth extinction, which she characterizes as “the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, [when] we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”
By extinction, Kolbert means the massive die-off of almost everything. In this dire state, “the usual rules of survival are suspended,” she writes. “Conditions change so drastically or so suddenly (or so drastically and so suddenly) that evolutionary history counts for little. Indeed, the very traits that have been most useful when dealing with ordinary threats may turn out, under such extraordinary circumstances, to be fatal.”
The Ordovician extinction was probably caused by glaciation. Next was the Devonian extinction, about 370 million years ago, followed by the biggest of them all, the Permian, when intense global warming made oceans heat up as much as eighteen degrees and some 90 percent of all species disappeared, coming “scarily close to eliminating multi-cellular life altogether.” The fourth extinction occurred in the Jurassic period, and the fifth was the one that most captures the popular imagination—the end of the dinosaurs,
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