BOOK REVIEW / The eve of destruction

THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: Biodiversity and its Survival by Richard Leakey & Roger Lewin Weidenfeld pounds 18.99

LAST month America's Nature Conservancy reported that up to a third of the plants and animals in the USA were in danger of extinction. One in 100 of all species known from historical records, the report claimed, was already extinct. For some scientists such figures reveal a danger to the very viability of the biosphere. Biologist E O Wilson believes that human depredation is causing mass extinction, with one species dying out every 10 minutes. Others, such as statistician Julian Simons, are sceptical about such claims. According to Simons the figures are the product of bad science. In any case, he argues, even the worst-case scenario is unlikely to lead to an ecological catastrophe.

Richard Leakey, who until recently was the controversial head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, attempts to negotiate this debate. Co-authored by Harvard biologist Roger Lewin, his book is elegantly written and, for the most part, cogently argued. But it is also deeply frustrating. While Leakey's head is with the sceptics, his heart is with the eco-pessimists.

Leakey's main thesis is a critique of the idea that nature exists in balance or harmony: "Eco-systems are in a constant state of turmoil, both in space and in time, and at any point some populations will be in decline while others will be booming." Imbalance is not only normal, argues Leakey, it is necessary for evolutionary development. Ecological communities that are immune to external disturbances become stagnant. Changes in the habitat, or even the destruction of part of the habitat, open up new ecological niches and greater biodiversity. Leakey shows how the biological richness of the Amazonian rainforest is the result of it having been subject to "tremendous perturbations" in the past. He even suggests that the ancient Mayan civilisation may have aided diversity by levelling much of the forest in certain areas.

Not only are external disturbances and population fluctuations an essential part of nature's development, but extinction, too, "is part of life's flow". The average life span of a species is four million years - a blink of an eye in the context of Earth's history - and 99.9 per cent of all species have disappeared. As one statistical wag has put it: "At a first approximation, all species are extinct."

On five occasions in the Earth's history there have been episodes of mass extinctions, when between 65 and 95 per cent of all species were wiped out. The reasons remain unclear but, in the words of geologist David Raup, in every case "global biology had an extremely close brush with total destruction".

All this would seem to give credence to the sceptics' argument. Disturbance and destruction of habitats, fluctuations in populations, even extinction, are all an essential part of nature. Even if it is true that human activity is leading to a sixth episode of mass extinction, humanity is not doing to nature anything that nature has not done to herself - often much more savagely.

But Leakey demurs from such a conclusion. The "sixth extinction", he claims, will be a catastrophe, and a terrible testament to the destructive tendencies of humanity. In the final few chapters Leakey transforms himself from a hard-headed scientist into a back-to-nature romantic. "Western culture, with its high-tech civilisation," he believes, "has come to ignore the essential connection between the human psyche and the world of nature."

Leakey the romantic has little time for the arguments of Leakey the scientist. He dismisses sceptics such as Julian Simons as "wilfully ignorant", "deliberately obscurantist" and "Panglossian". Where Leakey the scientist considered instability to be the engine of biodiversity, Leakey the romantic considers any "erosion" of nature as destructive. Where Leakey the scientist acknowledged that we have no idea how much biodiversity is necessary for the normal functioning of the biosphere, Leakey the romantic believes that any loss of species "reduces us in some ineffable way".

Leakey's real subject here is not biodiversity, but humanity. He agrees with E O Wilson that humans are "an environmental abnormality" whose very intelligence makes them "fatal for the biosphere", and believes that humanity will become extinct. His pessimism about the human condition leads him to conclusions about biodiversity unwarranted by his earlier, more measured arguments.

At the start of the book Leakey observes that much of the current fascination with extinction stems from our sense of vulnerability and uncertainty and our anxieties about humanity's future. "Many of the attitudes that govern discussion on extinction," he writes, "reflect emotional as well as scientific viewpoints." It is unfortunate that his own conclusions should bear out the truth of this. Biodiversity is too important an issue for the debate to be dominated by gut emotion rather than scientific reason.

Kenan Malik's next book, 'The Meaning of Race', will be published in April.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?