Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, published in 2014 and already available in paperback (New York: Picador, USD $16), has been celebrated among the best books of 2014. It’s a serious and intellectually daunting work of non-fiction, based on deep research and wide-ranging travels. Kolbert talked with experts around the world and did some field work herself, exploring the subject of extinctions in the present and in the five previous big die-offs (the first being at the end of the Ordovician period, approximately 443 million years ago).
Since before it was published I’ve been planning to review another book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and I’ll make good on that promise as soon as I can, but Kolbert’s book proved to be an irresistible and worthwhile digression. In their differences and similarities the two books are hugely enlightening. If you haven’t read either, you might start with The Sixth Extinction, because it may make you more receptive to Klein’s message, which is more radical and urgent than Kolbert’s science-laden narrative.
This won’t be a proper review of The Sixth Extinction, which consists of thirteen chapters, each with a different focus, a new location and another set of intriguing characters. I’ll deal with only two chapters, V (“Welcome to the Anthropocene”) and XII (“The Madness Gene”), both of which moved me to deep thoughts about human nature and the dynamics of the culture that our kind have created during the millennia of prehistory and in the accelerating pace of recent centuries.
The main character in Chapter V is Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist (more specifically a stratigrapher, an interpreter of ancient geological strata and the traces they preserve of life-forms and events deep in the earth’s past). He has studied the Ordovician extinction, in which 85% of marine species died off, and recently his focus shifted to the latest geological epoch, the Anthropocene – the world we humans, in historical time, inhabit and dominate.
Kolbert cites a number of other geologists who are interested in making a clear distinction between the present epoch and the Holocene (“wholly new”) epoch, dated from the end of the last ice age approximately twelve thousand years ago. The rationale for distinguishing the Anthropocene from the long post-glacial epoch arose from a recognition of profound changes in the earth’s surface, its atmospheric envelope, and the species our globe supports, all of which modern humans, accidentally or on purpose, have altered drastically.
Can we (the wealthiest, best educated, most powerful and technically savvy creatures ever to walk the earth) take responsibility for what we have done – and what we continue, rather heedlessly, to do?
According to Kolbert, the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel prize for discovering the causes of the ozone hole, was the first to publicize the full spectrum of “geologic-scale changes” that are “anthropogenic” (caused by human activity). The most significant of these changes, due to its long-term ripple effects, has been alteration of the atmosphere. “Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by forty percent over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, has more than doubled.”
Starting far back in prehistory, humans have hunted many species out of existence, and it may be within our power now, through a cascade of environmental impacts, to cause a die-off that will not only decimate biological diversity around the globe, but have a profound effect on the food chain we now take for granted.
Is it also within our power to reverse these trends?
Kolbert’s book raises this question, not blatantly but in many subtle ways, and the fact that neither she nor the scientists she reports upon have an answer only makes the book more haunting.
Chapter XII recounts what Kolbert learned on a visit to the Neander Valley, “about twenty miles north of Cologne”: in German it’s das Neandertal, and it was there, in 1856, that bones of the Neanderthal man were first discovered. “Today the valley is a sort of Paleolithic theme park.” The ancient Neanderthal branch of the hominid lineage populated a broad territory: “bones have been found as far north as Wales, as far south as Israel, and as far east as the Caucasus,” and they document occupation of Europe “for at least a hundred thousand years. For the most part, this was a time of cold, with ice sheets covering Scandinavia.”
The Neanderthal lineage went extinct, according to Kolbert, “roughly thirty thousand years ago,” but not before they had interbred with the invaders of their territory, Homo sapiens – our ancestors. What caused the demise of the Neanderthals? “Often climate change is invoked, sometimes in the form of general instability leading up to what’s referred to in earth science circles as the Last Glacial Maximum” – very harsh conditions that overtaxed the ability of that hardy race to adapt and prevail.
Throughout Kolbert’s book, accounting for mass extinctions over millions of years, profound changes in the physical environment are often decisive, but in this case her emphasis falls on the human factor: “Modern humans arrived in Europe around forty thousand years ago, and again and again, the archaeological record shows, as soon as they made their way to a region where Neanderthals were living, the Neanderthals in that region disappeared.”
Neanderthals and the more modern humans who presided over their demise were similar enough, genetically, to permit interbreeding (most of us contain somewhere between 1 and 4% of Neanderthal genetic material), but the invading and eventually triumphant humans carried DNA that provided them with superior adaptive abilities.
The part of this chapter that most intrigued me was her conversation with the evolutionary geneticist Svante Paabo (umlaut the a’s in that last name to get it right) about the difference between archaic humans and Homo sapiens: he doesn’t see the superiority of our species as an unmixed blessing.
The archaic humans lived for thousands of years and “spread like many other mammals in the Old World,” hunting and gathering, stopping at the water’s edge like the animals they hunted when they encountered broad rivers and seas of salt water. They had the tools that met their needs, and it seems they preferred the familiar to the unknown.
“It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it’s ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.”
This “Faustian restlessness,” as Kolbert calls it, is not pure madness, of course: it accounts for much (not all) of our creativity, and our fantastic ability to adapt to strange places and changing times. But these traits can be dangerous, and maladaptive – worse than ridiculous. It’s risky to romanticize the Faust figure, to take any proud rebel against the norms of his culture out of the context of tragedy.
We live in a post-heroic time. That doesn’t mean that heroism is impossible, but we have to hold the old mainsprings of heroism up to scrutiny. “The difficult we can do at once; the impossible takes a little longer”? That slogan, which I associate with American efforts during World War II, still sounds good to me, but not as a justification for aggression. And I’m afraid we’re no longer capable of the discipline and teamwork that got us through World War II.
Generosity, compassion, and self-sacrifice make better foundations for heroic effort than a self-centered desire to prove oneself, to be the best, to risk everything, or to win at all costs.
I’m not going to say anything against curiosity, since more often than not it’s my main motive, or my excuse, for doing this rather than that. Even idle curiosity has its place, but even I can see that if you’re going out of your way, it’s better to have a purpose, or a problem to solve.
Let’s count the costs of Faustian restlessness and impatience with limits – especially limits on appetites, ambition, and the will to power. Consider the broad socio-economic forces that shaped the modern world – the Anthropocene – starting in the 17th century: global exploration and trade, colonialism, slavery, wars, growth of cities and frontier settlements, longer life expectancy and more children leading to population growth, with some growth of democratic institutions and state bureaucracies. Not all bad, and more real progress in store, but more and more trade-offs, exploitation and self-deception. And so it goes, but forever? Dream on.
— A few minutes ago, before completing the preceding paragraph, I wrote in my journal: “I spent hours today, having started yesterday, on a post that came to seem quixotic, on the subject of extinctions and the kinks in human nature that drive us to destruction, aiming over the horizon at we know not what.”
That seems like a good place to stop for now, so I can turn to more practical matters. The next post will be a fresh start, with unfinished business related to the Comprehensive Plan.