Ex­tinc­tions, an epic re­al­ity

The grip­ping non-fic­tion shows how re­al­ity is ac­tu­ally more dra­matic than the imag­i­na­tion

Down to Earth - - REVIEW - SOPAN JOSHI

THE EPIC has re­mained the most grand of all lit­er­ary for­mats, even as it has changed and evolved over the cen­turies.The Ma­hab­harat that still makes a popular soap and JR R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings con­tinue to churn out prof­its.The novel, too ,is a vari­ant of the epic—one of the ear­li­est English nov­el­ists called his novel a “comic epic poem in prose”. A more re­cent vari­ant of the epic is the big sci­ence book. Sci­en­tists like Jared Di­a­mond, Steven Pinker and Stephen Jay Gould strad­dle nu­mer­ous sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines; their best­selling books draw from lofty sci­en­tific heights, but their read­er­ship is far beyond the world of sci­ence. Their books cover ev­ery­thing from the Big Bang to the cul­ture of mu­sic, from the Bor­ing Bil­lion to the di­a­betes epi­demic.

El­iz­a­beth Kol­bert’s pres­ence in this club is not typ­i­cal, for she is not a sci­en­tist. After ma­jor­ing in lit­er­a­ture in New York, Kol­bert be­came a jour­nal­ist. In 1999 she joined The New Yorker as a staff writer and de­vel­oped a spe­cial in­ter­est in re­port­ing on sci­ence and us­ing sci­ence to talk about var­i­ous sub­jects. In 2006 she pub­lished her first full-length book, Field notes from a Catas­tro­phe;

it emerged from three of her ar­ti­cles on cli­mate change. It is widely rated among the best and most com­pre­hen­sive books on cli­mate change, as much for its com­pre­hen­sive re­view of sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture as for an­i­mated re­portage from lo­ca­tions where ef­fects of cli­mate change are ap­par­ent.

Ear­lier this year, Kol­bert re­leased her sec­ond book, The Sixth Ex­tinc­tion: An Un­nat­u­ral His­tory. It grew out of a 2009 ar­ti­cle she wrote in The New Yorker on large-scale species ex­tinc­tions. The sub­ject has emerged grad­u­ally since the 1990s when sci­en­tists no­ticed the dis­ap­pear­ance of sev­eral frog species. The rea­son was un­known; some said it was pes­ti­cides, some said a bac­te­ria or a virus.

The book’s first chap­ter ex­plains how the mat­ter was set­tled: it is a strain of chry­tid fun­gus never seen be­fore.How the fun­gus spread is a telling ac­count of how hu­mans have changed the planet. A species of African frog, im­mune to this fun­gus, was used in the 1950s for preg­nancy tests across con­ti­nents. Which in­di­cates the depth and va­ri­ety of in­for­ma­tion in the book.

The struc­ture de­serves a men­tion. The head­ing of each of the 13 chap­ters has a sub-head­ing, which is the sci­en­tific name of a species.It be­comes a key to one of the sev­eral ex­tinc­tion phe­nom­ena, the stem that con­nects sev­eral branches. This one species also helps set up the reader nicely for a ride through a set­ting com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers in the book.

Here is Kol­bert chas­ing frogs in the rain­forests of Cen­tral Amer­ica; there she is out for a stroll and hav­ing an epiphany on the corals of the Great Bar­rier Reef off Aus­tralia’s coast; in a small Ital­ian town Kol­bert finds ex­tinc­tion records in ge­o­log­i­cal strata in the company of a quaint sci­en­tist; she dives the depths of the Mediter­ranean to ex­pe­ri­ence car­bon diox­ide bub­bling through the ocean floor, of­fer­ing a glimpse of what ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion will do to marine life.

Be­cause she is not a sci­en­tist, Kol­bert al­ways stands with the reader.It is plain that the sci­en­tists who an­i­mate the book with charm­ing quirks—and ex­plain years of gru­elling sci­en­tific en­quiry with one or two lu­cid images—are friends of hers.She has spent time with them, got to know them on an emo­tional plane, ploughed through reams upon reams of sci­en­tific ma­te­rial. Yet there is no doubt­ing she is there to find a great story to tell. All her in­vest­ment is to ul­ti­mately make sense to the reader.Not to en­gi­neer a re­sponse or even re­cruit the reader for the cause of bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion. Just to tell a mov­ing story well .A story of epic proportions.

Kol­bert makes a mark with her am­bi­tion as a story teller. By the end of the book, the reader can feel all the con­flict­ing pulls that re­sult from an epic read; all the drama, all the be­wil­der­ment.In terms of time, you will have to con­tend with the mys­tic ori­gins of life bil­lions of

Kol­bert writes that the in­va­sive species Homo sapi­ens will be re­spon­si­ble for the sixth ex­tinc­tion

years ago; just as sud­denly you will get dragged for­ward to the An­thro­pocene, the age of hu­mans, in which we are ca­pa­ble of un­der­stand­ing in ex­cru­ci­at­ing de­tail how we are de­stroy­ing in­nu­mer­able strains of life, and are yet help­less in stop­ping it. In terms of space, each chap­ter is a phys­i­cal travel through Dante’s In­ferno, Pur­ga­to­rio and Paradiso— right here on terra firma or sub­ma­rine.For her can­vas is as big as the blue planet.

That she achieves all this in non-fic­tion is a tes­ta­ment to the epic form step­ping out of the imag­i­na­tion, show­ing how re­al­ity is ac­tu­ally more dra­matic than the imag­i­na­tion. For all that she has achieved, though, there is room for one or two com­plaints.As a nar­ra­tor, Kol­bert is too much of a re­porter. The reader is not al­lowed into her emo­tional life. Which is in­con­gru­ous with the as­tute eye she turns to­wards the sci­en­tists she meets.

She con­sis­tently re­minds us that hu­mans are not the first to dra­mat­i­cally al­ter the bio­sphere. Cynobac­te­ria changed this planet dra­mat­i­cally 2.4 bil­lion years ago by ox­i­dis­ing it through pho­to­syn­the­sis. After Kol­bert re­leased the book came a study that pro­poses the great­est of the five ex­tinc­tions in the fos­sil record—the third one that hap­pened 252 mil­lion years ago, called the Per­mian-Tri­as­sic Ex­tinc­tion Event, also the Great Dy­ing—re­sulted from cli­mate change caused by a pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion of a bac­terium called Methanosarcina. The fifth and the last one was 66 mil­lion years ago; it wiped out the di­nosaurs .Sci­en­tists are veer­ing around to ac­cept that it was a gi­ant as­ter­oid that did it.

In the sixth ex­tinc­tion, writes Kol­bert, the as­ter­oid is one in­va­sive species: Homo sapi­ens. She must be con­grat­u­lated for es­cap­ing the manda­tory pres­sure to pro­vide a mes­sage of hope or a way for­ward at the end of her book. The epic form, lest we for­get, is tragic.


HIS­TORY E l i z a b e t h Ko l b e r t

Henr y Holt and Company | ` 699


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