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Skyping with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction

During our Evolution class field trip to the Galapagos, we didn’t have much downtime. Most of the day was spent outdoors: hiking, observing, learning, and snorkeling. But when he did have some free time (when, say, lounging on the top deck while whale watching), we had an unofficial book club to keep up with. As a class, we’d decided to read The Sixth Extinction, by New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert.

The book paints a pretty bleak picture regarding our impact on the planet and the impending sixth Extinction (the last mass extinction killed off the dinosaurs). During the trip and on the plane ride back, we discussed the book’s concepts and approach with our fellow students and professors. At the time, the general consensus was this: we agree that recent (recent in the geological sense) events such as climate change and ocean acidification are occurring at an alarming rate. But what concrete actions can we, as a species, take to curtail them? Kolbert’s narrative was incredibly engrossing but the book ends on a depressing note: she doesn’t propose an intensive plan for what we should do next.

Regardless, we returned to Caltech, with a newfound sense of responsibility and conservation in mind, and plunged back into our busy schedules. But a couple weeks into third term, our TA Jeff sent us an email saying he’d been able to set up a Skype call with Lauren Kolbert! (Jeff writes for WIRED when he’s not busy being a baller in lab, so he has all sorts of connections).

Unfortunately, I was unable to make the interview time, but Jeff and Laura (another student in the class, and an admission blogger as well!) sent me the transcript, from which I gleaned some pretty insightful info.

  1. When reading the Sixth Extinction, I noticed how well the book flowed, how easily Kolbert could transition from seemingly unrelated topics. I chalked this up to the fact that she’s an amazing writer for the New Yorker (which is definitely true), but in her interview, she mentioned that the book started off as a more of a historical narrative with a science component when she first began writing. As she edited and trimmed the book, the book became more scientific, but never lost the flow of its original version.

  2. During our Galapagos trip, our guide Ernesto stressed using the word "conservation," not "preservation," because it’s naive to think one can absolutely "preserve" any environment as it is. During the interview, Kolbert had some thoughts about this as well. She admitted that dealing with invasive species is tricky since we’re a world of global commerce, but she suggested conservation by keeping out larger invasive animals from biological diverse areas (i.e. the Galapagos).

  3. Kolbert’s narrative places the blame on humankind (rightfully so), but when I started researching the topic online, this angered quite a few people on the interwebs. So what if we affect our planet in ways it’s not accustomed to? Biological diversity will always prevail, right? After all, life has rebuilt itself from extinctions in the past! People love citing the fact that because there have been 5 mass extinctions before, recent disconcerting trends of climate change and ocean acidification do not deserve much government funding or scientific research. I, and most scientists, disagree with this stance and in her Skype interview, Kolbert puts these claims in an interesting framework. Sure, life has rebounded after mass extinctions, but this rebound takes a very long time (66 million years after the dinosaurs). These recent trends are having observable effects on our planet and our species, so of course we should care about and study the phenomena.

  4. The class’s largest qualm with Kolbert’s book was that she did not end the novel with information regarding conservation. We know what’s happening to our planet, now how do we stop / slow it? In her interview, Kolbert defended her rather bleak conclusion. She says, "I wasn’t going to end it cheesy. Why write it? People are interested in knowing things even if they’re dark. It’s a story that ought to be told." Furthermore, the solutions to such a wide scale problem are complicated, varied, and wholly unknown. Ending The Sixth Extinction with speculations about what should be done would diverge away from her otherwise factual and rational narrative.

  5. The chapter I most enjoyed in Kolbert’s book is titled "The Madness Gene," and it explores why humans are "crazier" than other similarly intelligent and capable animals. Why did we choose to wander out to sea, not knowing what we’d find? From fossil evidence, we know that our intelligent counterparts, Neanderthals, did not share this same sense of exploration. So is there a genetic basis for this madness gene? Svante Paabo and colleagues study this topic by comparing the human genome with the Neanderthal one, which they sequenced in 1997. Like me, Kolbert also felt that this line of research is fascinating. "All non-Africans, from the New Guineans to the French to the Han Chinese, carry somewhere between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA," she said.That’s pretty crazy.

  6. I’ve been interested in scientific writing and communication for quite some time. I’ve realized that I love talking and teaching people about science much more than I enjoy being at the lab bench. Kolbert shared how she got involved with scientific writing: she got into journalism first and learned how to write. From there, she was able to shift her focus to more scientific topics.

I hope to casually begin doing the same. I really enjoy writing blog posts (and hope you enjoy reading them!) and I’d love to venture into more scientific writing for the public when I graduate. I’m planning to write a guest article for Jeff’s WIRED column about these big guys..

..so stay tuned!

That’s all for now,


Ketaki Panse