Our story begins with the emergence of a new species—a species that does not yet have a name, but which “has the capacity to name things.”
The book begins on a note of mystery, defining human beings with the cryptic observation that they have the power to name, and yet have no names themselves. Kolbert’s technique “distances” readers from their own species, allowing them to learn about the history of the human race with an open mind.
There aren’t very many members of the new species, and most live in eastern Africa. The species isn’t very strong, fast, or fertile—but it’s exceptionally resourceful, capable of exploring many different environments, crossing oceans and deserts, and hunting different animals. Members of the species travel to Europe, where they meet “creatures very much like themselves,” whom they interbreed with and then kill off.
The history of humanity is marked by both destruction and stunning achievement. The bravery required to travel across oceans and the cruelty required to kill other animals represent the two sides of human nature that Kolbert will discuss in the book.
As time goes on, the species continues to kill off different animals. Soon, the species—which now calls itself Homo sapiens—can be found in every corner of the Earth. Around this time, the species begins to change the atmosphere of the planet itself. In doing so, Homo sapiens raise the levels of the seas, killing other species and forcing many others to migrate away from their homes.
Here, Kolbert introduces the thesis that humans have begun to alter the very structure of the planet—the atmosphere, the oceans, etc. By situating humans in a long history of destruction and environmental interference, she suggests that human history is, at its most basic level, the history of how people have changed their environments.
No single species has altered the state of the planet as greatly as the Homo sapiens. And yet, there have been at least five other times when the planet underwent great changes that led to mass extinction; this makes the current wave of extinctions the Sixth Extinction. In this book, we’ll look at the history of thirteen species, including mastodons, auks, and dinosaurs, and study why they failed to survive over time. Kolbert hopes that her readers “will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.”
Kolbert will compare and contrast the current wave of mass-extinction with its five predecessors, showing how manmade environmental changes are unprecedented in planetary history. Notice that Kolbert doesn’t advance a strong thesis about what the human race’s response to mass-extinction should be; while she has her own ideas about what to do, her first priority is to convince the reader that mass-extinction is happening (which is an important project, considering that a lot of powerful people deny that humans have altered the environment in any significant ways).