The Sixth Extinction

Themes and Colors
Mass-extinction and Morality Theme Icon
Natural Selection and Mass-extinction Theme Icon
Environmental Change and Human Nature Theme Icon
Science and Paradigm Shifts Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sixth Extinction, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The central theme of The Sixth Extinction is, unsurprisingly, extinction. In the book, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the different ways that scientists have understood species extinction. In particular, she argues for the “catastrophist” theory of extinction. According to this theory, species do not go extinct slowly and gradually; instead, there are eras of planetary history during which global catastrophe causes many thousands of species to go extinct almost simultaneously. It is likely, she argues…

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Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is central to Kolbert’s study of the Sixth Extinction. Darwin posits that species are in a constant process of adapting to environmental changes based on competition for a finite number of resources (such as food, water, and shelter). The “fit” species (which can access the world’s resources and have offspring) survive, while “unfit” species die out. Generally, the “fit” species succeed at accessing resources because of their ability…

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Given the catastrophic effects of human activity on the environment, The Sixth Extinction bumps up against one of the most frightening and mysterious questions about human nature: what kind of creatures are human beings, that they have the ability and the need to cause the Sixth Extinction?

To explore this question, Kolbert first defines who human beings are based on what they can do; she posits that the human species’ defining characteristic is its ability…

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Get the entire Sixth Extinction LitChart as a printable PDF.
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One of the most important points that The Sixth Extinction makes is that humans only learned about natural selection, extinction, and environmental degradation very recently. (Only a few decades ago, for instance, scientists didn’t realize that fossil fuels could change the pH of the oceans, devastating marine life.) In addition to being a study of extinction, then, Kolbert’s book is about the way science changes over time. Interpreted in this way, environmental science is…

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