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306 of 337 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Clarion Call for Ending the Current Mass Extinction
As a former invertebrate paleobiologist, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" is the book I have been waiting for years to be written. It is a clarion call for ending the current mass extinction that we humans are causing, and a book that should be, according to Scientific American, "this era's galvanizing text", worthy of comparison with Rachel Carson's "Silent...
Published 11 months ago by John Kwok

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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Great Disappointment
I had great expectations for this latest offering from journalist Elizabeth Kolbert since her prior book ("Field Notes from a Catastrophe") was outstanding. Sadly, I was disappointed. The presentation of material seemed overly formulaic, with an endless pattern of anecdote, discussion, anecdote, discussion.... The treatment of past extinction events and the history of...
Published 9 months ago by Grinnell Fisher


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306 of 337 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Clarion Call for Ending the Current Mass Extinction, February 1, 2014
This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
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As a former invertebrate paleobiologist, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" is the book I have been waiting for years to be written. It is a clarion call for ending the current mass extinction that we humans are causing, and a book that should be, according to Scientific American, "this era's galvanizing text", worthy of comparison with Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring". It is also a vastly superior popular science book than last year's "Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction" written by IO9 science editor Annalee Newitz, simply because Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has done a superlative job in science reporting, accurately reporting and interpreting work done by some of the most notable researchers of our time studying mass extinctions, whether it is research from Berkeley vertebrate paleobiologist Anthony Barnosky (The lead author of a 2011 Nature paper estimating that current extinction rates are equivalent to those of the five great mass extinctions recognized from the fossil record; the terminal Ordovician, terminal Permian, terminal Triassic and the terminal Cretaceous; the latter in which non-avian dinosaurs became extinct.) or American Museum of Natural History curator of invertebrate paleontology Neil Landman, a noted researcher of Cretaceous ammonites, or evolutionary geneticist and anthropologist Svante Paabo, whose team is sequencing the entire Neanderthal genome and recognized the existence of another late Pleistocene hominid species, the Denisovans, from genomic material in a fragment of a finger bone found in a Siberian cave. What Kolbert has written is a spellbinding work of science journalism worthy of comparison with David Quammen's "The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions", and one that belongs on the bookshelves of anyone interested in science, and especially those who may not grasp the full extent of the ongoing mass extinction being caused by us, humanity. Moreover, at the end of her book, she provides an extensive bibliography which notes many of the most important relevant scientific papers as well as important texts written by the likes of notable ecologists James H. Brown and Michael Rosenzweig, and paleobiologists Michael Benton, Douglas Erwin and Richard Fortey. Without question, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History", may be one of the most discussed, most important, books of popular science published this year.

In her opening chapter, "The Sixth Extinction", in prose that is hauntingly beautiful and poignant, Kolbert cites the disappearance of Panamanian frogs and toads as one emblematic of the ongoing crisis in biodiversity, noting that of all the major groups of terrestrial vertebrates, amphibians are the ones which are most rapidly going extinct before our very eyes. She uses the discoveries of fossil mastodons and mammoths in North America and Europe in the 18th and early 19th Centuries in the second chapter ("The Mastodon's Molars") to introduce readers to the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier who was the first to recognize the existence of extinct species and the likelihood that they died during great cataclysms in Earth's history. Her third chapter, "The Original Penguin", is an especially lucid account of British geologist Charles Lyell's uniformitarian view of Earth's history, and how that inspired Charles Darwin's thinking, not only in geology, but especially, in his conception of the Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection, while describing the rapid extinction of the Great Auk - which was the first bird to be dubbed a "penguin" - in the North Atlantic Ocean along the northernmost coast of North America and Iceland. In the fourth chapter, "The Luck of the Ammonites", she offers an especially lucid account of geologist Walter Alvarez's discovery of the iridium-rich clay at the end of the Cretaceous, leading to the development of the asteroid impact theory for the Cretaceous mass extinction, while also discussing work by such notable invertebrate paleontologists as David Jablonski, David Raup, Jack Sepkoski, and Neil Landman, in noting how the Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, ammonites and other notable terrestrial and marine organisms, was simply a case of bad luck, which she emphasizes further in describing the probable causes for the terminal Ordovician and terminal Permian mass extinctions (Chapter V).

Kolbert devotes two chapters (Chapters VI and VII) to the ongoing "experiment" humanity is performing on the world's oceans, ocean acidification, caused by an excessive increase in carbon dioxide being dumped into them, and noting that it was a likely cause for several of the mass extinctions known from the fossil record. I must commend her for an excellent discussion of the species-area curve known for decades by ecologists, especially through the important research by E. O. Wilson and his colleague Robert MacArthur in the early 1960s (Chapter VIII), as a means of understanding habitat fragmentation (Chapter IX) as a major contributing factor in determining a species' prospects for survival. There are also excellent discussions on how human activity has fostered the unexpected dispersal of animals and plants, creating, in essence a "New Pangea" (Chapter X), that has only accelerated the tempo of the ongoing mass extinction, and the "Pleistocene Overkill" hypothesis (Chapter XI) proposed by geologist Paul S. Martin that has been confirmed, in spectacular fashion, by palynological (fossilized pollen and spores) data from Australia and North America. She describes the extinction of Neanderthals as another, much earlier, example of human-driven extinction (Chapter XII) relying on the notable research by Svante Paabo and his team, noting the importance of the "Out of Africa" theory in explaining Homo sapiens' global dispersal, while also discussing Paabo's "leaky-replacement" hypothesis that accounts for Neanderthals' eventual replacement by Homo sapiens through interbreeding, resulting in hybrids whose descendants include all non-African populations of humanity, contributing between 1 and 4 percent within the genomes of non-African populations, remnants of the Neanderthal genome. In the concluding chapter (Chapter XIII), Kolbert acknowledges she has been amassing evidence demonstrating why the current mass extinction exists, and warning us that "...we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy."
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163 of 181 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like Looking In A Mirror, But Failing To See The Image, February 9, 2014
This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
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From the title of this book, it would be easy to imagine that it was another science writer creating a book about climate change and attributing our future to that singular event. On the contrary, Elizabeth Kolbert has shown, through a number of examples, how we are destroying our environment and possible ourselves in the process.

Kolbert begins by going through the past five extinctions and explaining what is known of them and how they came about, as well as what organisms were present during each of them that eventually were wiped out. She then travels around the world to look at a number of ways in which we humans are causing the death and destruction of our current environment. That ranges from acidification of the oceans from excessive carbon dioxide levels to clear cutting of forests and to our unwitting transfer of invasive species around the globe on a regular and frequent basis.

This book is a wakeup call for all humans. In one way or another, we are all working to end the existence of numerous species and possibly our own. We may possibly be too smart for our own good. A quote from near the end of the book is certainly a message that is cause for us all to ponder! " If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap."

Kolbert writes with the non-scientific individual in mind and makes even the most difficult subjects easy to understand. As I said above, we are looking in a mirror and failing to see the destruction we are creating. Kolbert makes us look at that image. This book is fascinating and thought provoking and very much well worth the price!
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118 of 133 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars insightful exploration of human-driven extinction, February 2, 2014
This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
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Elizabeth Kolbert's globe-trotting effort to probe the concept of Extinction covers all the angles. In the first half of her book she explains the complex process by which scientists such as Lyell and Cuvier pieced together an understanding that large extinction events have occurred several times in our planet's history. The most notable of these was the case of the Yucatan meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, an amazing episode of mass-extinction that has only been understood over the past thirty years. In the second half, she branches out into the anthrocene era, with the terrifying prospect of ocean acidification, alien species introductions, and the gradual isolation and disappearance of tropical plants. Kolbert's perspectives reveal that humans have driven extinctions not just today, and not just with the nineteenth century eradication of the Great Auk, but back to the end of the ice age with our hunting of the Mastodons and Giant Sloths. For Kolbert, it does not mean that humans are inherently vicious- but it does mean that our drive to change our environment to suit our needs is a dangerous drive- because it risks sawing off the branch on which we are perched.

Kolbert is studiously non-political in this effort, which may frustrate environmentalist readers seeking a red-meat endorsement of change in human society. But her thoughtful and wide ranging analysis is extremely informative on a topic that is not well understood by all. A careful reading will leave the reader disturbed and frightened, despite her matter-of-fact tone.
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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Author does not allow scientific quality of her claims to be clouded with politicization, February 12, 2014
This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
`The Sixth Extinction' written by Elizabeth Kolbert is an extremely interesting book that talks about the phenomenon of species extinction that we are all well-aware of from the study of history; the only difference being that in this case one who conducts the research is the same one that could be one of its subjects - the human species.

The author in her work used an expert way to merge scientific facts and forecasts for the human future that can be inferred from the natural current and historical indicators; the result is a thrilling book that is quick and easy to read, although its foreboding is sometimes a bit of ominous.

Kolbert decided to divide her book into two parts; in first part she discusses how humans came up with theories of species mass extinction while in second half she is more concerned with the human impact on nature and eco-systems, mostly global warming and increase of ocean acidification, that resulted with large changes and extinction in plant and animal species in the short time which in the lifetime of the planet can be considered a blink of an eye.

What made her book looking serious is the fact that at no time author does not allow scientific quality of her claims to be clouded with politicization - therefore, Kolbert's book is not a political pamphlet nor she had the desire to take reader subtly in one direction. Instead the author delivered a work of investigative journalism in its essence which as much as its topics and conclusions may seem complex, didn't even for a moment went into cheap platitudes.

The way author chose to end her book is also very interesting - Kolbert does not want to play the prophet ending her work with some apocalyptic conclusions of what will be of most interest to the readers: What about human destiny? She intuitively leads reader to this issue, but she does not attempt to answer it - it will be left to each individual after closing the last page of her excellent book.

The only thing that slightly spoils the impression of the book is the fact that it lacks a bit more graphic material which would have made it even more pleasant for viewing, and not just for reading - some colorful pictures and history timelines that would show historical periods on which the author discusses skillfully on her pages. However, this is only a very small flaw compared with all the positive, useful and instructive things you will find between its covers which make `The Sixth Extinction' highly recommended for reading.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The end of the world as we know it, February 15, 2014
This is the second book I've reviewed over the years by this title. The first was by Richard Leakey The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind by Leakey, Richard E. Reprint Edition [Paperback(1996)].
Leakey's version of this very bleak story is more focused on disappearing biota, and Kolbert's more broadly observant of how extinction has happened over the centuries. Still, I'd commend both books to any reader interested in how our species is bending life on earth to the breaking point. We forget our dependence on the whole system to our peril, and we (writ large) have definitely forgotten how we fit.

While other reviewers of this book have cast it as a wake up call, or a demand for action, I'm afraid my own reaction is a bit more resigned. It appears to me, from the evidence presented in both books (and much elsewhere) that the die is cast. We have initiated an unraveling that is highly unlikely to be halted. We will save a species here, an ecotone there, for a while. But the release of fossil carbon and the intercontinental transfer of species (and diseases) is going to play itself out. We are very unlikely to survive our own mischief, and we are taking down most of the rest of our fellow travelers in the process.

This too shall pass.
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37 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heard any frogs lately?, February 8, 2014
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Joan C. Scott (New Mexico and Oregon) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
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Elizabeth Kolbert demonstrates in The Sixth Extinction that she is a superb writer. She presents in VERY readable form some of the history of beliefs about life on earth, some basics of paleontology, and some present-day science. She very ably demonstrates that we human beings (which she refers to as a "weedy race" reminiscent to me of David Brin's reference in his novels The Uplift Trilogy to humans as having sprung up without instruction or development from more advance races in the universe) are probably in process of causing a 6th major extinction period here on earth -- the fifth having been the period when the dinosaurs disappeared.

Her writing is so readable that in her chapter about frogs I kept recollecting times in about the last 20 or so years that I have been in places where I expected to hear choruses of frogs singing at night as I did in my childhood and young adulthood -- and wondered fleetingly why I was not hearing them. Though I have always had some concern about what humanity is doing to the earth, it never even occurred to me before reading this book that we may already have wiped out a species as widespread and plentiful as I always knew frogs to be.
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35 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stellar science journalism on a subject of immense importance, February 11, 2014
This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, is exactly what it’s title and subtitle implies. It is a natural history about an ongoing unnatural worldwide biological event: the sixth extinction. In the 4.5-billion-year history of planet earth, there have been five mass extinction events and many smaller events. Each was triggered by some cataclysmic phenomenon; each lasted many millions of years; each ushered in a new geologic era; each left the earth’s biological diversity immensely impoverished yet ripe for another many-million-year expansion of enormous evolutionary change.

At the present time, most scientists believe that we are in the process of a sixth mass extinction event. What is unnatural about this event is that we are causing it. This mass extinction is antropogenic in origin. It is ongoing. When it started and when it might end—and whether it ends with the demise of our own species—is under scientific discussion.

This book is not a popular literature review of the subject; rather, it is a work of stellar science journalism. Kolbert informs the reader about the subject through a series of stories. We become tag-alongs on an adventure journey of scientific curiosity.

Kolbert is an outstanding prize-winning science journalist. Her style of writing is clear, easy to understand, and thoroughly engaging. When you read one of her books, you are part of the process of uncovering the truth.

For this book, Elizabeth Kolbert traveled the world interviewing scientists, and often accompanying them on field research projects. In this manner, she manages to get a first-hand story angle on many of the most significant aspects of this immense and complex ongoing historical event. Even events of distant science history are related through some type of story that takes the reader on a present-day journey to discover what remains of the origins of these important, centuries- or many-decades-old discoveries.

In her own words, Kolbert explains that the book is divided into thirteen chapters. “Each tracks a species that’s in some way emblematic…The creatures in the early chapters are already gone, and this part of the book is mostly concerned with the great extinctions of the past and the twisting history of their discovery…The second part of the book takes place very much in the present—in the increasingly fragmented Amazon rain forest, on a fast-warming slope of the Andes, on the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. I chose to go to these particular places for the usual journalistic reasons—because there was a research station there or because someone invited me to tag along on an expedition.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I read it cover-to-cover with avid interest in a couple of days. I enjoyed tagging along with this journalist as she investigated this topic with a large range of scientists around the globe. Many times the book felt like a natural history adventure travelogue rather than a science book.

I already knew a great deal about the Sixth Extinction, but this book provided me with a structure within which to experience the whole of it and try to comprehend the enormity of what is happening. Because this book took the form of a journalistic inquiry and investigation, it seemed very personal. Thus the impact was perhaps greater than it would have been had I read a scientific literature overview.

I join with “Scientific American” in hoping that “this powerful, clear and important book” may not merely be “compared to ‘Silent Spring’” but that it might become “this era’s galvanizing text.”
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Human Strain, February 9, 2014
This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
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Since multi-celled life began around 600 million years ago, natural history has seen five mass extinctions. Life's trend line favors greater complexity: more than twice the number of life forms exist today than right before the dinosaurs vanished. Yet five times, the number has contracted violently. Scientists who study and classify life's profound complexity say we're now facing a sixth mass extinction, the first caused by one species' actions.

New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert takes two tacks in her analysis of extinction. She considers extinction as a philosophical concept and scientific fact, while also exploring current circumstances where entire species are vanishing under human eyes. The results are often astonishing. Our understanding of Earth's biome continues evolving, but Kolbert cannot escape the consequence that humans, inevitably, change all life around ourselves.

Natural philosophers once couldn't comprehend the idea of extinction. Whenever explorers encountered bones of vanished animals, they invented extravagant explanations how the bones arrived: Noah's flood, or mythological creatures, or we'll find them across the horizon. Even Thomas Jefferson, himself a noted naturalist, couldn't compass the idea that species might vanish. This even as European colonialism changed environments wherever white plows broke the soil.

But French researcher Georges Cuvier examined the evidence and could only conclude: entire categories of species no longer existed on earth. Cuvier identified mammoths, pterodactyls, giant sloths, and other vanished species. But he didn't just prove that species had vanished in the past; he proved that species could still vanish today, changing how humans perceive our relationship with nature. Any species could potentially vanish--including, imaginably, us.

Globally, innumerable species now face critical jeopardy. Kolbert travels to witness heroic efforts to preserve the Panamanian golden frog, tropical corals, and complex Amazonian biomes. But extinctions resist easy explanation. Traditional narratives, like global warming, habitat loss, or hunting, prove too simplistic for Earth's complex, shifting biology. One factor underlies all likely explanations, though: species are vanishing because of human actions. We're annihilating species we haven't even identified yet.

Humans pushing other species off the brink is nothing new. Science has demonstrated that ancient "megafauna," like mastodons and moas, vanished when early humans overhunted them. We probably also exterminated Neanderthals, too. But circumstances have changed today. Humans know the consequences our actions are producing, and have the choice whether to continue. Unlike our ancestors, we can no longer sit back in ignorance, blind to the consequences of our actions.

This makes today's extinctions different from the past. Each of the "Big Five" had different causes: depletion of breathable air, or global cooling, or the Chicxulub asteroid. Some mass extinctions have happened slowly, and one happened in one violent day. But never before has one species so thoroughly changed Earth's ecology. Humans so completely dominate Earth today that some scientists recognize a new geological era, beginning around 1750, the Anthropocene.

Essentially, humans aggressively reverse natural history. Earth separated the continents to create separate life spheres; our transportation technologies bring these spheres together, turning ordinary species into invasive weeds. Earth pulled carbon out of the air, creating a temperate, breathable atmosphere; we turn that carbon into fuel, burn it, and create the most carbon-soaked conditions our planet has seen in forty million years. We turn Earth's clock back.

Kolbert doesn't completely disparage human activity. Though our consumption has driven many creatures to, or past, the point of extinction, we've also worked to prevent that very effect. Professional scientists and interested volunteers strive heroically to prevent extinction. Species long vanished in nature survive because humans persevere. But even this proves Kolbert's underlying thesis, that human action, not wind and water, now dominates Earth's surface.

One recalls the invisible morals Lee Van Ham warns about.

Notwithstanding her title, Kolbert admits we aren't in a sixth mass extinction event. Yet. Though many, many species are critically endangered, and extinctions currently occur far beyond what ordinary biology explains. But growing knowledge and humans' ability to make moral decisions make reversal of this dismal trend possible. Humans could restore Earth to the unprecedented diversity that life enjoyed relatively recently. The question, then, becomes: will we?

Humans act. That's our nature. Unlike, say, the tropical trees Kolbert spotlights in one chapter, we don't just strike balances with nature; we make choices, devise plans, and act. But in our technological we've accepted complacency as the price of comfort. Kolbert calls humans to choose against passivity and dedicate ourselves to reversing our destructive ways. The burden lies on us now. Will we listen while we still have time?
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Great Disappointment, April 22, 2014
This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
I had great expectations for this latest offering from journalist Elizabeth Kolbert since her prior book ("Field Notes from a Catastrophe") was outstanding. Sadly, I was disappointed. The presentation of material seemed overly formulaic, with an endless pattern of anecdote, discussion, anecdote, discussion.... The treatment of past extinction events and the history of human thought on extinction, while interesting, was not only muddled, but provided much more detail than was necessary to tie-in to the bigger, main point of the book (which is that humans are the ultimate cause of the current -- or sixth -- mass extinction). The final chapter, where I expected the big pay-off and tie-up of all the preceding material, seemed trite, weak, and anti-climactic, and merely attempted to offer a thin ray of hope and an apparent plea for humans to prevent the coming extinctions. Another major disappointment for anyone who has followed environmental issues (climate change, invasive species, habitat loss) for any length of time in the scientific and/or lay literature, is that there is little new information here. In addition, I gather from some other reviews that readers who lack scientific backgrounds may have trouble with some of the topics, which I see as another failing on the part of the author.

On the positive side of the ledger, those who are new to the topic may find much of interest. Certain stories, such as the ones about white-nose syndrome in bats and the loss of so many frog species, are so heart-breaking that they may inspire some readers to get involved with conservation efforts before it's too late (with the caveat that it is already too late for many species). To me, this is a 2-star book, but I've given it a "bonus star" because any book that takes this topic out of the realm of academia into the public spotlight can't hurt.
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33 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing account of our world, January 28, 2014
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This review is from: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Hardcover)
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This book is rather frightening as the author presents a sobering account of our world and our hand in the biological challenge that we face. I usually do not read this type of book, however, the title was intriguing and this account of how our world is changing day by day was well worth the time. The earth has been evolving for millions of years and we are all affected. Humanity needs to take stock of how much we have contributed to this great upheaval unfolding in front of our eyes. This is a powerful endeavor and I salute this fine author who has presented such a clear view of what is ahead for mankind and our impact on other species. Recommended reading.
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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Hardcover - February 11, 2014)
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