Occasionally, I read a book that makes me feel a lot dumber than I normally am. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert reminds me that I’m not smart enough to be a scientist. Probably I have lots of Neanderthal genes. Not that Neanderthals were dumb. On the contrary, there is evidence suggesting they were “sophisticated” enough to interbreed with the prevailing species homo sapiens. It might be worth noting, however, that even though Neanderthals had large brains, many of us homo sapien reviewers and critics only have big heads.
I enjoyed The Sixth Extinction as much as I could and can recommend it heartily to others, especially professionals, and young aspiring paleontologists, anthropologists, and other “gists.” Although probably I’m not smart enough to know for sure, Elizabeth Kolbert appears to be a really smart scientist. The Sixth Extinction does seem brilliant, and methodical, categorizing, listing, giving one example after another, providing the required gravitas. But for those not fully appreciative of the need for repetitious details, hammering home the same point, using the scientific method, and peppering the narrative with Latin, it can prove difficult reading. As such, it lacks the narrative drive needed to bridge the gap between a dumbass layman like me and those consumed with the urgency often buried in the science.
Disturbingly, I almost came away with a message antithetical to Kolbert’s intentions. If that happened to me, then what about others who are even dumber than I am. Trying to categorize 10,000 species of insects that might go extinct at a rate possibly equal to new species appearing seems Sisyphean. Or preserving a cute mammal on the way to extinction only to have another mammal appear more suited to the new environment. So what if a species goes extinct, because nature will find a way. With that sort of thinking, sticking your arm up a rhinos ass or jacking of a crow in the name of preservation makes brilliant scientists seem a bit perverse.
Of course, this is not the point. The point, if ever there is one, is that we’re really screwing ourselves. This was effectively made clear in the last two or three pages. We humans are facilitating our own extinction. But piling up all the evidence as Kolbert did, without a narrative that bridges to those of us not as scientifically astute as she, leaves open interpretations that only serve to mislead and foster dumbass conclusions like mine. Feeling better, superior even, with my newfound belief that I’m right and she’s wrong, I may find solace in my newfound faith, turn on the air-conditioner, and have another beer.