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The Sixth Extinction
February 11, 2014 3:27 PM   Subscribe

In his 1996 book The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen observed that if you destroy most of a habitat and leave only a small patch of wilderness behind, you have effectively created an island—and islands, for complex ecological reasons, sustain far fewer species and far more extinctions than mainlands. Now watch things get complicated. At the same time that our logging, mining, farming, road-building, suburban-sprawling species is turning the entire planet into an archipelago, “global trade and travel do the reverse: they deny even the remotest islands their remoteness.” The result, as Kathryn Schulz reports, is that we are living through The Sixth Extinction.
posted by shivohum (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

I liked The Song of the Dodo immensely, and this looks like a book I would also enjoy--thanks for the heads-up.
posted by box at 3:32 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

There's also a NYT interview with Elizabeth Kolbert (the author) that is good. Not just because of this section
You profile Kinohi, a Hawaiian crow in the San Diego zoo. Why him?

He’s one of about 100 of his kind left. Kinohi is being kept there so that his sperm can be collected by a very, very devoted specialist. She spends a lot of time stroking him and trying to get him to ejaculate.

Spending time with them showed me the amazing lengths people are willing to go through to preserve species. That’s the other side of the extinction story. With Kinohi, one felt the shadow of his impending death — he’s very old in bird years — and that of his species.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:52 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

'Song' and 'Sixth' added to the list.
Tangentially, I just finished Quammen's Spillover, which is a great read illuminating an aspect of human encroachment on (formerly) remote ecosystems: animal-to-human disease transmission. Despite the garish cover art, this is a pretty straightforward-not-really-hyperbolic overview. Of many that I've read, Quammen provides the clearest narrative of AIDs emergence. Worth the read for that section alone.
posted by j_curiouser at 3:59 PM on February 11

Peter Ward has also written about how all but one of the previous five mass extinctions were driven by climate change, usually due to the "success" of a life form that dramatically changes the environment.
posted by perhapses at 4:11 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Song of the Dodo is an unusual narrative in that it crosses more than 1 genre.

I didn't have a good feeling for the book after getting through it, but I think about the ideas years later. Like tenrec radial speciation. Or how evolution happens on the islands and then gets imported back to the mainland.
posted by sieve a bull at 5:28 PM on February 11

it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. (Amazon review)
Yeah so did Schultz's book review. Mission Accomplished!
posted by surplus at 6:47 PM on February 11

Is this like Pepsi Blue to the Daily Shown tonight?
posted by sfts2 at 8:46 PM on February 11

This was a great review of a great-sounding book. From the review

For all the exquisite attention Kolbert pays to bats and auks and ammonites, what emerges most clearly from her book is the Janus face of the human species. We killed those auks; we also traced a slender layer of clay back 66 million years to identify the asteroid that killed those ammonites. This is our freakish, wondrous, terrifying signature: We can explore a planet, admire it, domesticate it, destroy it.

Can we also save it? Kolbert’s tone, crystalline, reserved, sits like a pane of glass in a darkened window. It could be that dwelling in geologic time, as you must do to write about extinction, is good for perspective but bad for action; the arc of the actual universe is so long it bends toward fatalism. Human time, by contrast, is good for acting but bad for seeing. It is into the chasm between these two timescales that species are dropping like flies.

posted by lalochezia at 8:58 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]

I read the fine article.

I don't find humanity to be more morally culpable than other species at genocide. Just more able. In the Song of the Dodo for example, if two species get stuck together on an island, the noble predator will quickly genocide the prey and then starve.
posted by sieve a bull at 9:24 PM on February 11

Oh wow, I can't wait to read this. I find all of this so fascinating. Our species, like all we know, WILL die and disappear. And sooner than anyone really seems to accept.
posted by agregoli at 9:31 PM on February 11

I don't find humanity to be more morally culpable than other species at genocide.

I'm curious to hear if your ethical system also places moral blame on an animal for killing a human, or rather forgives humans for killing each other.
posted by one_bean at 10:04 PM on February 11

one_bean, forgiving humans. But only for the reason that guilt puts blinders on what could be disinterested science.

In dealing with indirect cultures, one must always observe ego. Ego is the reason they will lose face if you say A=A. So skirt around ego, and don't mention their pride as you do.

In our direct culture it is still ego. But the ego of the vain. Vanity is different from pride, in that it raises up the pride of others. Vanity would suffer if humanity was said to be a sicko. And then individuals would think the opposite of what you told them.
posted by sieve a bull at 10:50 PM on February 11

Mankind has de facto dominion over all other life forms. Mankind must learn to exercise this dominion in a way that fosters life rather than death. This requires that mankind learn to love, honour and recognize other life-forms as unique and irreplaceable expressions of the infinite and eternal.
posted by No Robots at 10:01 AM on February 12

this requires that mankind learn to love, honour and recognize other life-forms as unique and irreplaceable expressions of the infinite and eternal.

Or merely a recognition of the obvious reality that we cannot survive or prosper by destroying our ecology. Metaphysics are not required.
posted by spaltavian at 8:39 PM on February 12

The insistence on a purely utilitarian approach to other life-forms and the dismissal of the duty to recognize in them any "metaphysical" value constitutes the very essence of the dominant eco-immoralism.
posted by No Robots at 5:57 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

No, the essence is putting short-term gain ahead of long term prosperity. This is essentially the root of all modern problems. If your mysticism brings people on board, fine, but the problem is legislative, economic and technological, not spiritual.

If your problem is with utilitarianism and "eco-immoralism", whatever that means, then that ship sailed with the advent of agriculture, if not the Great Leap Forward itself. Have fun trying to reprogram mankind.
posted by spaltavian at 10:53 AM on February 13

Have fun trying to reprogram mankind.

Mankind has a gun to its head. It's "mysticism" or death, I'm afraid. That being the choice, "reprogramming" should be easy, if not fun. Appealing to "long-term prosperity" doesn't work unless people have some kind of positive vision, some "mysticism," about the future.
posted by No Robots at 11:07 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

It's "mysticism" or death, I'm afraid

This is based upon nothing more than your insistence. Every environmental success we have had- CFCs, smog, conservation- was done with legislation, technology, and economic clout, not hand-waving.

Appealing to "long-term prosperity" doesn't work unless people have some kind of positive vision, some "mysticism," about the future.

Bunk. People care about their future and their kid's future with or without Jesus. The problem has always been ignorance and malfeasance of the powerful. That's solved through political will. We don't need to be born again, we need another Teddy Roosevelt.

I've worked with and known people who have devoted their lives to this, and who have done more for our future than most people ever will. Sniff at that all you want, but they get shit done without your "necessary" morality.
posted by spaltavian at 1:08 PM on February 13

From a Darwinian point of view, the problem with sustainability is this: sustainability is all about long-term benefits of the world or of the ecosystem at the expense of short-term benefits. Darwinism encourages precisely the opposite values. Short-term genetic benefit is all that matters in a Darwinian world. Superficially, the values that will have been built into us will have been short-term values not long-term ones.--"Sustainability Doesn’t Come Naturally: A Darwinian Perspective On Values" / Richard Dawkins
posted by No Robots at 1:20 PM on February 13

How Long Does Mass Extinction Take?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:12 AM on February 19

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