Warning: This book is not sugarcoated.

August Book Review: The Sixth Extinction Kills

Elizabeth Kolbert’s best selling book gives students a look at the consequences of a human-caused mass extinction.

Every teacher needs a relaxing summer read to help them unwind after a long school year. Under no circumstances is this month’s book recommendation a pleasant departure from reality. Quite the opposite, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History explains in great detail how human activity has brought multiple species to the brink of annihilation.

Author Elizabeth Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the book, offers a bleak and refreshingly pragmatic assessment of the Anthropocene, the geological age of human influence. As humans have flourished, it’s often been at the expense of other living things, literally changing the face of Earth and how its systems interact in the geological blink of an eye. Each chapter serves as a case study our impact a species through climate change, ocean acidification, changing habitats due to deforestation and human development.

Through harsh in its assessment of humanity, the book offers the chance for science teachers to help their students put biological concepts into real-life context.

Several mass extinction evens have occurred over the history of life on Earth, but none have been caused by a single species. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

How to teach:

Read the whole book: The Sixth Extinction would make for excellent required reading for any AP Environmental Science course. Chapters could be assigned for homework and then used for group discussion in class. Connecting the phenomena highlight in each chapter to what the students learned previously in biology would help expand their understand and put their knowledge into real-life context. Teachers could even skip around the book, assigning chapters to read that line with their curriculum units.

Reading part of the book: Kids younger than 11th or 12th grade would probably have a hard time reading the entire book on their own. Serious scaffolding would be needed to support students in digesting both the vocabulary and the consequences of our bleak ecological future. There is, however, great value for an introductory biology course in reading a chapter or two as a class as an introduction to a unit. By reading The Sixth Extinction as a group, you can help your students grow their scientific vocabulary while at the same time providing a very engaging and very real example of the biology concepts they are learning.

Recommended chapters:

  • Chapter 4: Luck of the Ammonites – Ammonites survived on Earth for nearly 350 million years and several mass extinctions of their own. But the asteroid impact that took out the dinosaurs drastically changed the water chemistry of the ocean and the ammonites met their demise. Makes of a great case study in how a species fittest is a function of their environment; if that environment changes, a species might not be as well suited to survive.
  • Chapter 5: Welcome to the Anthropocene – Extremely detailed chapter on how humans have literally changed the face of the Earth through deforestation, building infrastructure, water usage, and climate change.
  • Chapter 8: The Forest and the Trees – Kolbert explores how climate change is forcing the trees in the Peruvian Andres, who have adapted to specific altitudes, move up the mountainsides in search of cooler temperatures. Excellent real-world example of how species cannot adapt fast enough in a world of increasing temperatures and resource partitioning.
  • Chapter 9: Islands on Dry Land or Chapter 11: The Rhino Gets an UltrasoundHabitat fragmentation due to human development of land has destroyed the homes of many animals and segmented their populations, isolating individuals and hurting genetic diversity.

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