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Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Compelling yet Neglected Book – The Sixth Extinction




The publisher of this blog (Tristan Ewins) is busy right now completing his PhD; But Eric Aarons has been kind enough to provide us with another book review - this time on the book 'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert.   Eric Aarons engages with Probert' book - explaining the causes of extinction in the past - and the threat for further extinctions and damage to the natural environment. In essence -  capitalism is viewed as a system which takes growth and consumerism to extremes - in a way which is not sustainable.


 
Reviewed  by  Eric Aarons

The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, is a practiced journalist and a widely read science commentator. She has written a book that is not about what may be coming, but what we are already in – a massive extinction of species. We know through scientific research of five of these that occurred before human beings even existed; but the sixth is our very own creation.  We have fittingly described the era we are now living in by the word ‘Anthropocene’, which proclaims that we are now the species that dominates all the rest, not only the animal, vegetable and insect, but also the  mineral coating of rock, water, and soil that enfolds the molten rock that forms most of the plane.

We do not own it, but are its custodians – a concept that includes caring for and looking after, a task with which we have yet to adequately cope.

Kolbert writes a prologue recognising the fragility of the newly evolved (about 200 million years ago) human ape, now self-described as Homo-sapiens (man the wise); but she also specifies the survival talents we possess. We are not especially swift or strong, but are singularly resourceful. We multiply readily, and are equipped to push into regions with different climates, predators and prey. We can cope with difficult terrain and spread worldwide, including to Australia where we had to cope with building some kind of vessel and cross a wide stretch of water without being able to first see the far shore. We encounter very large animals but cope with the dangers they pose, inventing new weapons. Not least, we find the way to make, and up to a point, control fire.          

We leave behind in our their travels collections of our species, which become permanent bodies of people with distinctive physical characteristics and patterns of behaviour (culture), influenced by different surroundings, and patterns of behaviour established, perhaps through influential individuals.

The so-called ‘races’ are not variations on the Homo sapiens species genetic identity, as Noel Pearson correctly pointed out in his recently published Quarterly Essay: ‘A rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete Commonwealth’. They are rather significant modifications of physical appearance and cultural behaviour, often relating to climatic and occupational sources.

Extinctions

The French naturalist Georges Cuvier began the close examination of animal extinctions. Employed as a teacher at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, he had time to spare. He used it to examine the extensive collections it held of animal bones and skeletons which were widely collected at the time as curiosities. He noticed, in particular, the value of teeth in identifying various specific species of elephant, noticing, for instance, that ‘the elephant from Ceylon differs more from that of Africa than the horse from the ass or the goat from the sheep.’ (pp. 28-29).

He had discovered extinction – a world previous to ours 

He then posed the question about two large and different skeletons which did not correspond to any known living animal, concluding they must have come from ‘lost’ (that is, now extinct) species. But this posed another question: What could kill off huge animals, far bigger than elephants? The answer he gave was: catastrophes, cataclysms!

This view prevailed for some years, but was questioned by geologist Charles Lyell, who saw all round him mainly examples of peaceful and very slow change. Typically, ‘both’ turned out to be the case.

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This illustrates the human tendency to go to extremes. Indeed, there have been many catastrophes in Earth’s history (though, thankfully, they are infrequent). Past ones, caused by collision with extra- territorial bodies have been located through measuring the amount of the element Iridium, in earth samples. This element exists in small amounts on earth, but is more plentiful in meteors and other larger objects which the earth encounters from time to time.

The last one (135 million years ago) struck a glancing blow on the Yucatan peninsula near the southern end of present Mexico.  It created a ‘nuclear winter’ by the worldwide dust blocking out the sun for a long time. This  killed off the dinosaurs, creating conditions in which mammals could flourish, eventually giving rise to apes, from which we humans emerged, appearing as ‘lords of creation’, but now also the source of massive extinctions,  as we shall see.   

Our first and very own extinction?

It was probably the Great Auk. We ate it.

It was a large flightless bird about 80 cms tall, laying nutritious eggs about 12 cms long, and was  eaten on and offshore. It was a source of soft feathers cruelly pulled out to stuff mattresses, and their oily flesh was used for fuel. When Europeans first found them there were up to one hundred thousand pairs on their favoured island off the coast of Canada, while the last individual was killed in 1844. (page 62) 

From there I pass to Chapter 5 where the author introduces us to the era in which we now are, and act as ‘Monarchs of all we Survey’, designating it as the ‘Anthropocene‘. We skip over some species that are produced by oceans to the oceans themselves (Chapter 6), to the  small island of Castello Aragonese, which has been produced by the very large forces of the northward drift of the African continent. Oceans occupy 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, and there is constant exchange of gases between atmosphere which varies as, through combustion of fossil fuels, we put, increasing quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, forming a weak but nevertheless powerful shell and coral dissolving  acid. 

But it is the rapid rate of increase that is the biggest problem:

If we were adding CO2 to the air more slowly, geophysical properties like the weathering of rock would come into play to counteract acidification. As it is, things are moving too fast for such slow- acting to keep up . . . time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time. (Page 123)

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. (page 130) 

The Fate of the Megafauna 

As boney skeletons attest, large animals and birds existed on most continents, and in the oceans, including the mighty whales. On Australia’s eastern seaboard many human ‘whale- watchers’ appear to see them in their north-migration season. But there are now no living members of, for instance, the Diprotodon, a giant wombat with a weight approaching that of a smallish elephant.

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The writer of this review is also a sculptor, and to honour this animal made a sculpture of a female of the species out of a 9 tonne block of golden granite. This now stands in the sculpture park of the Campbelltown Arts Centre near Sydney, where children like to ride upon its back.

Discussion was keen about the cause of the extinctions, but now the major cause today, in the author’s view, is that it lies with us ourselves - that is, with the things we do, and the rate at which we do them.

Causes of The SixthExtinction – the one we humans have caused, not nature   

Biological processes, which involve chemical reactions, take time, more time than they do in test tubes, because they have to collect, pass through membranes, then react with others. The changes needed to set in motion the ‘origin of new species’, as postulated by Darwin and Wallace and is now almost universally accepted, likewise take time, far more time since a great number of entities, both living and inanimate are also involved.  

Elizabeth Kolbert is telling us that in our very own age – the Anthropocene – we humans are now changing the world so rapidly that a growing number of species do not have enough time to replicate, because we are changing the outside conditions too fast for them to viably adapt. She points out that ‘caring more’ is welcome, [but] what is important is ‘that people change the world’ [too much, too quickly]. (page 266)                                                                                                      

The Neanderthals

I now return to the text, in particular to the penultimate chapter that deals with the discovery of a new but now extinct species – the humanoid Homo neanderthalensis.  It was named after the Neander valley near Cologne, where it was first discovered in 1856. Later, its bones turned up all over Europe and the Middle East, then as far north as Wales, as far south as Israel , and east to the Caucasus.

They lived in teepees, made clothes of a kind from animal skins (it was  very cold in Europe at the time) and made and used stone tools by flaking. Perhaps most significantly they ‘made love’ as the saying goes, with humans, sometimes producing progeny that lived. We don’t know whether they had a language in our sense, but the most striking fact was how like human beings they could have looked when dressed in human garb. There are a number of pictures in the book of them so garbed in our clothing, and the resemblance is uncanny, perhaps unsettling. 

Elizabeth Kolbert has deliberately labelled the chapter ‘The Madness Gene’, dealing with the human characteristic of ‘going to extremes’. Personally, this reviewer does not consider this trait to be genetically based, though it could be culturally determined by the fact that, for capitalism, there is no limit to the amount of profit that can be made in given circumstances.

The capitalist system is presently in an economic state that has not yet been solved with its current tools, and is faced with a culturally strong group of nearly 2 billion Muslim peoples that it needlessly aroused into a state of enmity - and  that it is finding increasingly difficult to deal with.  

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Each different social system makes a different bed to lie on, or to spring from, and the current one – capitalism – repeatedly demonstrates the power of ‘more’, bigger, deeper, higher, further, faster. But this can’t go on for ever, as it now threatens to do, 

Moderation

This is not a dirty word, but it is often treated with scorn or anger as if it were.

It is, and I think actually has been in the past, a sign of civilisation in our cultural activities of speaking, writing, music making, eating, drinking and personal relations. We actually look for it in the top level of sports, but also savour, and nominate as ‘sporting’, empathetic treatment of one contestant to another who is suffering from some form of difficulty.

I believe, especially after reading the warning alarms sounded by the author in this book, that we should moderate our own behaviour, as a species, in regard to the needs of other species, and of our own, and of future human generations. 

I think her heading of the penultimate chapter about Neanderthals, ‘The Madness Gene’, goes a bit far, even as an exaggeration, to make a good point, and could tend to weaken the necessity to act now! But I offer her my heartfelt congratulations on researching and writing it.

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