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Jean-Léopolde-Nicolas-Frédéric Cuvier. My man!

March 27, 2014 by Reader's Connection

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Those e’s with accents don’t really work in this software, do they? Cuvier was a naturalist in late eighteenth-early nineteenth century France, and he helped to create the idea of extinction. Before that time, no one believed that species stopped existing, and it was unthinkable that whole scores of species would stop existing at the same time.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, the very category of extinction didn’t exist. The more strange bones were unearthed–mammoth, Megatherium, mosasaurs–the harder naturalists had to squint to fit them into a familiar framework. And squint they did. The giant bones belonged to elephants who had been washed north, or hippos that had wandered west, or whales with malevolent grins. When Cuvier arrived in Paris, he saw that the mastodon’s molars could not be fit into the established framework, a “My God” moment that led him to propose a whole new way of seeing them. Life, Cuvier recognized, had a history. This history was marked by loss and punctuated by events too terrible for human imagining.

That’s Elizabeth Kolbert, from her new book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Scientists now believe that there have been five great extinctions, five periods when for some reason many species went extinct at once; and as Kolbert’s title implies, many believe that we’re living in the midst of another such period, a mass extinction brought about by you-know-whom.

She travels the globe, meeting all manner of scientists and checking in on frogs and trees and coral reefs and rhinos that may be in danger of extinction. Her wit, the span of her knowledge, and her willingness to hike around in peculiar locations all serve the reader well on this sobering journey.

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