The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

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ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW'S 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes
Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Henry Holt and Company
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Published on
Feb 11, 2014
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Pages
336
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ISBN
9780805099799
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Language
English
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Genres
Nature / Ecology
Science / Life Sciences / Evolution
Science / Natural History
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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New York Times Editors' Choice 2017

Forbes Top 10 Best Environment, Climate, and Conservation Book of 2017

As new groundbreaking research suggests that climate change played a major role in the most extreme catastrophes in the planet's history, award-winning science journalist Peter Brannen takes us on a wild ride through the planet's five mass extinctions and, in the process, offers us a glimpse of our increasingly dangerous future

Our world has ended five times: it has been broiled, frozen, poison-gassed, smothered, and pelted by asteroids. In The Ends of the World, Peter Brannen dives into deep time, exploring Earth’s past dead ends, and in the process, offers us a glimpse of our possible future.

Many scientists now believe that the climate shifts of the twenty-first century have analogs in these five extinctions. Using the visible clues these devastations have left behind in the fossil record, The Ends of the World takes us inside “scenes of the crime,” from South Africa to the New York Palisades, to tell the story of each extinction. Brannen examines the fossil record—which is rife with creatures like dragonflies the size of sea gulls and guillotine-mouthed fish—and introduces us to the researchers on the front lines who, using the forensic tools of modern science, are piecing together what really happened at the crime scenes of the Earth’s biggest whodunits.

Part road trip, part history, and part cautionary tale, The Ends of the World takes us on a tour of the ways that our planet has clawed itself back from the grave, and casts our future in a completely new light.

Although mammals and birds are widely regarded as the smartest creatures on earth, it has lately become clear that a very distant branch of the tree of life has also sprouted higher intelligence: the cephalopods, consisting of the squid, the cuttlefish, and above all the octopus. In captivity, octopuses have been known to identify individual human keepers, raid neighboring tanks for food, turn off lightbulbs by spouting jets of water, plug drains, and make daring escapes. How is it that a creature with such gifts evolved through an evolutionary lineage so radically distant from our own? What does it mean that evolution built minds not once but at least twice? The octopus is the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. What can we learn from the encounter?

In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, tells a bold new story of how subjective experience crept into being—how nature became aware of itself. As Godfrey-Smith stresses, it is a story that largely occurs in the ocean, where animals first appeared. Tracking the mind’s fitful development, Godfrey-Smith shows how unruly clumps of seaborne cells began living together and became capable of sensing, acting, and signaling. As these primitive organisms became more entangled with others, they grew more complicated. The first nervous systems evolved, probably in ancient relatives of jellyfish; later on, the cephalopods, which began as inconspicuous mollusks, abandoned their shells and rose above the ocean floor, searching for prey and acquiring the greater intelligence needed to do so. Taking an independent route, mammals and birds later began their own evolutionary journeys.

But what kind of intelligence do cephalopods possess? Drawing on the latest scientific research and his own scuba-diving adventures, Godfrey-Smith probes the many mysteries that surround the lineage. How did the octopus, a solitary creature with little social life, become so smart? What is it like to have eight tentacles that are so packed with neurons that they virtually “think for themselves”? What happens when some octopuses abandon their hermit-like ways and congregate, as they do in a unique location off the coast of Australia?

By tracing the question of inner life back to its roots and comparing human beings with our most remarkable animal relatives, Godfrey-Smith casts crucial new light on the octopus mind—and on our own.

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