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 to change the environment. Humans have altered their environments profoundly for as long as they’ve been human, and almost every major milestone in human history (the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, for example) reflects an increase in human control over the environment. While many people would intuitively define humans in terms of their powerful cognitive abilities, Kolbert argues that human intelligence, while impressive, isn’t definitive. Chimpanzees and other apes often outperform young children in puzzles, and they show the capacity for abstract reasoning and logical inference. Furthermore, there have been other highly intelligent species in history, such as the Neanderthals. Instead, Kolbert argues that the species’ most lasting legacy (and, therefore, its most noteworthy trait) is its ability to change planet Earth itself. For this reason, some scientists have named the modern era the “Anthropocene”—the age of man.
Kolbert ties human beings’ unique achievements to their unique ambition, drive, and passion—qualities which, one could argue, fall into the category of “madness.” Humans, it would seem, are the only creatures on the planet who feel a need to explore other places, even when their current environments are satisfactory. They are also the only creatures on the planet who seem to aspire to be remembered after their deaths. To emphasize the fundamental strangeness of human ambition, Kolbert contrasts human beings with their close relatives, the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe thousands of years ago. Early humans explored other environments, but Neanderthals were, it seems, content to remain in their homes. Scientists have argued that humans have a unique “madness gene,” which pushes them to discover and conquer the rest of the word. In such a sense, humans’ “madness” is the fuel that drives them to alter the environment, and represents a basic part of their nature.
Kolbert offers a final (and more optimistic) definition of human nature: the ability to nurture and protect others. While it’s true that humans have caused an enormous amount of damage to the environment, it is also notable that humans are the only creatures who seem to expend their time and effort protecting other species. (Indeed, much of The Sixth Extinction consists of Kolbert visiting the many wildlife preserves and endangered species facilities around the world.) Ultimately, then, Kolbert offers a nuanced, even contradictory, view of human nature. Humans are both destructive and creative; they’re capable of wiping out entire species without caring, but also of preserving endangered species with incredible care and kindness. Perhaps humans have the freedom to choose what kind of lives they want to live, and which aspects of their nature they want to indulge—this, Kolbert suggests, is humanity’s best hope against the Sixth Extinction.
Environmental Change and Human Nature ThemeTracker
Environmental Change and Human Nature Quotes in The Sixth Extinction
The process continues, in fits and starts, for thousands of years, until the species, no longer so new, has spread to practically every corner of the globe. At this point, several things happen more or less at once that allow Homo sapiens, as it has come to call itself, to reproduce at an unprecedented rate. In a single century the population doubles; then it doubles again, and then again. Vast forests are razed.
The history of life thus consists of "long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic."
I thought about this as we trudged back to camp. If Cohn-Haft was right, then in its crazy, circus-like complexity the ant-bird-butterfly parade was actually a figure for the Amazon's stability. Only in a place where the rules of the game remain fixed is there time for butterflies to evolve to feed on the shit of birds that evolved to follow ants.
Long-term relationships between pathogens and their hosts are often characterized in military terms; the two are locked in an "evolutionary arms race," in which, to survive, each must prevent the other from getting too far ahead. When an entirely new pathogen shows up it's like bringing a gun to a knife fight. Never having encountered the fungus (or virus or bacterium) before, the new host has no defenses against it.
If, on the other hand, people were to blame—and it seems increasingly likely that they were—then the import is almost more disturbing. It would mean that the current extinction event began all the way back in the middle of the last ice age. It would mean that man was a killer—to use the term of art an "overkiller"—pretty much right from the start.
It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don't see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it's ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.
The Neanderthals lived in Europe for more than a hundred thousand years and during that period they had no more impact on their surroundings than any other large vertebrate. There is every reason to believe that if humans had not arrived on the scene, the Neanderthals would be there still, along with the wild horses and the woolly rhinos. With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens is also the capacity to destroy it.
Certainly humans can be destructive and shortsighted; they can also be forward-thinking and altruistic. Time and time again, people have demonstrated that … they’re willing to make sacrifices on those creatures’ behalf.
Among the many lessons that emerge from the geologic record, perhaps the most sobering is that in life, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results.