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The Sixth Extinction

An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

9:03am, February 11, 2014

Almost nothing in nature is so rare as a mass extinction. On only five occasions in Earth’s long history has a large fraction of the planet’s biodiversity disappeared in a geological instant. But, journalist Kolbert reminds us in her new book, we are well on our way to making it six.

A lesser writer tackling this subject might offer up a dreary list of dead and dying species; Kolbert instead tells a scientific thriller. The tale begins in 1739, when strange bones turned up near the Ohio River. Stumped, the French scientist Georges Cuvier declared they must belong to a mammal that no longer exists, which he called the mastodon. As evidence for such archaic forms piled up, Cuvier went further, proposing that Earth’s history is full of lost species, and sometimes they wink out in large numbers.

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