Are We Experiencing a "Sixth Extinction" and Does It Matter?


The idea that we are currently experiencing a "Sixth Mass Extinction" developed during the late 1980s and early 1990s in the context of heightened awareness of global biodiversity loss. The term "Sixth Extinction" is an explicit reference to the five major mass extinctions of the geological past, and reflects the important influence that paleontology—the study of life’s pas—has had on estimates and predictions about the present and future of life on Earth. However, while it has become an effective rhetorical tool, the term "Sixth Extinction" also raises problems. On an empirical level, it is debatable whether comparisons of data and scale between past and present extinctions are valid—a concern raised by paleontologists themselves. And from an ethical and philosophical perspective, the analogy between the agency of humans and major geological events of the past flirts with an anthropocentrism that has often characterized the discourse around the "Anthropocene."

David Sepkoski is a Senior Research Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He has written widely on the history of paleontology and biology, data and information practices in natural history, and the environmental sciences. His current book, Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity is a history of the relationship between scientific theories and cultural anxieties about extinction, and will be published by the University of Chicago Press. His next project is a history of cultural responses to the sciences of "deep time" from the Enlightenment to the Anthropocene.

This presentation was given at the interdisciplinary conference Nonhuman Agents in Art, Culture and Theory Art Laboratory, 24–26 November, 2017, organized by the Art Laboratory Berlin.


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