2020-05-28 20:43 (Thu)
An Unnatural History
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An Unnatural History
  • Duman Kuandyk Staff Reporter
  • Approved 2020.04.02 21:36
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The Sixth Extinction won a Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2015
The Sixth Extinction won a Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2015

Before winter begins, bats fly into caves and other dark and secluded places to hibernate. This makes winter the best time for scientists studying bats to see how their population has changed over the year. Counting bats is not a simple task — scientists need to enter, or more often than not, crawl into the cave, and carefully make their way into the darkness. Once there, they take as many high-quality pictures as possible, and then slowly leave the cave. Only after that can they proceed to manually count the bats in the photos. But in 2007, when a group of wildlife scientists went to a cave near New York City, they witnessed something they had never seen before. Instead of seeing bats hibernating in their typical upside-down position, they witnessed a pile of dead bats on the ground. Each of the bats had their noses covered in a talcum-like powder as if they tried to snort something before they died. Unable to find the exact cause of such a bizarre event, the scientists hoped that this problem would simply go away. But the phenomenon spread further, and more dead bats with the same symptoms were found in different caves across the continent.

This mysterious disease, which later became known as white-nose syndrome, caused a sharp decline in the number of North American bats. It is just one of the many in the chain of strange and disturbing events that are significantly reducing wildlife diversity around the globe. While there are almost always some species that are in danger of going extinct, mass extinctions are very rare. In four billion years, our planet has only witnessed five mass extinctions, with the last one wiping out the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago. But Elizabeth Kolbert, a reporter at The New Yorker, says that right now the Earth is undergoing the sixth mass extinction — and we are to blame.

To an average KAIST student, The Sixth Extinction might seem to explain obvious things — of course, human beings are responsible for climate change. But while we all seem to understand global warming in general, we fail to see the devil in the details. The Sixth Extinction comes in handy at this point — the book excellently fills in the missing gaps in our understanding of how man-made climate change affects every living being on this planet. Kolbert manages to explain complex terms and concepts in easy-to-understand language, without oversimplifying them.

Instead of reciting disturbing statistics on the numbers of species going extinct, Kolbert takes a different approach — she personally traveled to places where these species are living or, as in some tragic cases, used to live. By quoting centuries-old diaries that describe how these now-extinct animals roamed the lands, she lets the reader experience how we are literally changing the surface of the planet. Perhaps the most surprising finding is that we, as a species, began to exterminate others not in the 20th, nor the 17th century, but almost from the very beginning of our existence. The Sixth Extinction mentions that humans don’t always eradicate other species directly — sometimes we accidentally bring invasive species, either plants or animals, to new lands where, left without their natural predators, they can uncontrollably drive out native species. But the book makes it clear that humans themselves are the most invasive species on the Earth.

The Sixth Extinction does not have any exact plot or storyline. Instead, it is a blend of historical accounts mixed with the author’s trips to personally witness unfolding mass extinction events, from the rainforests in Amazon to isolated islands in Oceania. Such a chaotic mix of stories that initially seem unrelated can easily confuse the reader. It is only halfway through when it becomes clear why the book is arranged this way. The excerpts on the history of science and exploration, in addition to an educational purpose, perfectly explain how our planet ended up in such a crisis. Kolbert’s personal travels to remote parts of the world in search of endangered species clearly show the consequences of our actions on this planet. 

Reading The Sixth Extinction is like collecting pieces of a good puzzle — at certain moments it gets so confusing that the desire to give it up is as strong as reading a textbook. But something calls the reader to completion; perhaps the tension of mysterious bat death, perhaps the duty to learn of humanity’s misdeeds. After reading the whole book, one feels like the effort was not in vain — having spent time examining every small detail, it’s possible to see the big picture of where our planet is heading to. Needless to say, that picture is alarming.


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