The Sixth Extinction


Elizabeth Kolbert

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Popularized by Georges Cuvier in the early 19th century, catastrophism is a theory positing that species go extinct because of sudden, catastrophic events. Examples could include earthquakes, floods, or the massive asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs. It is a theory that stands in contrast to uniformitarianism.

Catastrophism Quotes in The Sixth Extinction

The The Sixth Extinction quotes below are all either spoken by Catastrophism or refer to Catastrophism. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mass-extinction and Morality Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Picador edition of The Sixth Extinction published in 2015.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Cuvier's essay was pointedly secular. He cited the Bible as one of many old (and not entirely reliable) works, alongside the Hindu Vedas and the Shujing. This sort of ecumenicalism was unacceptable to the Anglican clergy who made up the faculty at institutions like Oxford, and when the essay was translated into English, it was construed … as offering proof of Noah's flood.

Related Characters: Georges Cuvier
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Darwin's familiarity with human-caused extinction is also clear from On the Origin of Species. In one of the many passages in which he heaps scorn on the catastrophists, he observes that animals inevitably become rare before they become extinct, "we know this has been the progress of events with those animals which have been exterminated, either locally or wholly, through man's agency." It's a brief allusion and in its brevity, suggestive. Darwin assumes that his readers are familiar with such "events" and already habituated to them. He himself seems to find nothing remarkable or troubling about this.

Related Characters: Charles Darwin
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Darwin's successors inherited the "much slow extermination” problem. The uniformitarian view precluded sudden or sweeping change of any kind. But the more that was learned about the fossil record, the more difficult it was to maintain that an entire age spanning tens of millions of years, had somehow or other gone missing. This growing tension led to a series of increasingly tortured explanations. Perhaps there had been some sort of “crisis,” at the close of the Cretaceous but it had to have been a very slow crisis. Maybe the losses at the end of the period did constitute a "mass extinction."

Related Characters: Charles Darwin
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:
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Catastrophism Term Timeline in The Sixth Extinction

The timeline below shows where the term Catastrophism appears in The Sixth Extinction. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3: The Original Penguin
Mass-extinction and Morality Theme Icon
Science and Paradigm Shifts Theme Icon
...sudden, global catastrophes that caused large numbers of species to go extinct. The opposite of catastrophism is uniformitarianism, which is closer to Darwin’s idea of species and landscape gradually changing in... (full context)