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Every March the campus empties out, and as the New England winter slowly gives way to spring, most students get a break before the mad dash to the end of term. But each year I am reminded of the seniors who remain behind, in the libraries or in science labs, in studios or just hiding in some quiet corner…writing, calculating, thinking, editing, and generally burning the midnight oil as they prepare senior projects.

I can’t help but think back to writing my own thesis on psychoanalysis and politics. This was one of my most important intellectual experiences, and the fact that I’m still teaching Freud in the spring (next week, in fact) points to the impact that focused research and writing can have. It may also point to my own lack of intellectual progress.

In any case… I put out a call on Twitter and also to the academic Deans to hear about the subjects on which seniors are working. This list is not representative…just a collection from those who sent me information. But look at the range of topics. Here’s what I’ve received:

Ariella Axelbank (advisor: John Finn), “The Lack of a National Theater in the United States”
Lucy Britt (Sonali Chakravarti), “Political Reconciliation and Forgiveness in Post-Genocide Rwanda”
Grace Powell (Doug Foyle), “US Drone Strikes in Pakistan and Yemen”
Chloe Rinehart (Jim McGuire), “Conditional Cash Transfers in Ecuador: Obstacles to Uptake”
Andrew Trexler (Joslyn Trager), “War Making and State Development in the Contemporary Middle East”
Jeremy Edelberg (Abigail Hornstein), “Corporate Bond Liquidity and Credit Spreads”
Mari Jarris (Ulrich Plass), “Theory, Empirics, Revolution: A Three-Dimensional Approach to Subverting Authority”
Bohao Zhou (Brian Fay), “Cosmopolitanism: A Pragmatic Attitude of Self-Growth”
Max Bigman (Jolee West, Joyce Jacobsen), “An Algorithm for Reform: The Potential Impact of Blended Learning on American Education”
Katie Deane (Studio Art),”In-Out, In-Out”
Joshua Neitzel (Francis Starr), “Stability of DNA-linked Nanoparticle Lattices”
Paul Hanakata (Francis Starr), “Unraveling the mysteries of the Polymer Thin-Film Glass Transition” (This thesis has already led to two publications!)
Peter Martin (Marty Gilmore), “Modeling and Analysis of Potential Martian Brines”
Lisle Winston (Scott Holmes), “Examining the role of histone variant H2A.Z in chromosome dynamics”
Matthew Donahue (Jill Morawski), “On Being Second Guessed by a Machine: A Reevaluation of the Bogus Pipeline”
Alec Harris (Elizabeth Willis) is writing a creative thesis that consists of poems about economics. He is an econ/English double major.
Anya Morgan (Rachel Ellis Neyra) is writing about zombies in American film and Haitian literature.
Emily Weitzman (Clifford Chase and Lisa Cohen) is writing a creative non-fiction piece about her experience with Sister Asya, a midwife, and other Muslim women in Kenya.
Aron Chilewich (Courtney Weiss Smith) is writing about the novels of Ben Lerner(not Marcus, as I had written), the much acclaimed author of contemporary experimental fiction.
Elizabeth Clayton (Kari Weil) is writing on the literary genealogy of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Taylor Steele (Amy Bloom) is writing about how food in its various states is connected to our experiences and desires.
Ethan Tischler (Mary-Jane Rubenstein),”Emptiness and Wholeness: Untangling the ‘Realities’ of Tibetan Buddhism and Quantum Physics”
Nathaniel Elmer (Architecture), “Beat Space”

In Romance Languages and Literatures I’ve head about the following:

Elle Markell is writing a thesis in Spanish about Argentinian writer César Aira.
Sarah Dash, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Fascist Ideology in the Kitchens of a Nation”

Christina Norris will produce a radio podcast in the format of “This American Life” to explore the public reception and consumption of the media portrayal of terrorism following the March 2012 terrorist attack in Toulouse, France, and the Boston Marathon tragedy a year later in April 2013.

Two more in NSB from Matt Kurtz:

Rachel Rosengard, “Comparing two methods for improving verbal memory in schizophrenia”

Rachel Olfson, “Methods for Remediation of Theory of Mind (ToM) Deficits in Schizophrenia”

Sarah Mahurin reports that Elsa Hardy (AfAm, Hispanic Studies) is writing a thesis on cross-cultural exchange between child care providers and their employers.

Sarah Sculnick (English) is writing on the urban literary regionalisms of Gwendolyn Brooks (Chicago) and August Wilson (Pittsburgh).

In General Scholarship:

Maggie Feldman-Piltch, “Enforcing the Human Rights Obligations of Organizations”

And from FGSS, certainly a contender for best title:

Ella Dawson (Robert Steele), “Girl Has Sex, World Doesn’t End: Reconceptualizing Feminist Erotica”

That’s already an impressive list, but there are lots more theses being written, drawn, and performed. I apologize for not having a more complete list, but if you are so inclined…just add titles to to comments below.

Last week I received great news from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. The board just approved a major endowment grant to our new College of Film and the Moving Image. CFMI will receive a $2 million gift, if Wesleyan can raise another $4 million for the College over the next four years. This is similar to the very generous matching gift that Mellon made to our Center for the Humanities a couple of years ago. We completed that match in 2013, establishing an endowment for the Center for the Humanities for the first time in its 50-year history.

The CFMI is dedicated to advancing understandings of the moving image in all its forms—film, television, and digital media—through pedagogy, scholarship, community outreach, and historical preservation. The focus throughout is on the study and practice of visual storytelling, and the model of a close-knit, interactive college is well suited to the inherently collaborative nature of work in the world of film, television, and digital media. The CFMI—integrating our renowned Department of Film Studies, Cinema Archives, Center for Film Studies, and Film Series—will expand student access to the subject and increase learning opportunities for non-film majors.

I believe that this is the first major grant that Mellon has made to film studies in its long history of supporting liberal education. The foundation explained that Wesleyan’s liberal arts approach to film was “unique” in the field, and its leadership was delighted to help the university build a foundation for a program that had already achieved so much.

Congratulations to the film alumni, students and faculty! And now onward to raise this important endowment match!!

This week we learned that a survivor of a sexual assault had filed a lawsuit against the Psi Upsilon fraternity at Wesleyan, some of its individual members and its national organization. We had not spoken publicly about this matter out of concern for the survivor’s privacy. Now that civil proceedings have commenced, on behalf of the university community, I want to express our horror at this shameful assault. Our internal investigation of the incident, which took place last spring at an event held in violation of university regulations, led to the perpetrator’s dismissal from the university and sanctions against the fraternity and individual members of it.

At Wesleyan there are three residential fraternities. Their buildings, housing a total of 67 students, are owned by their respective organizations. While these fraternities have had some autonomy, all have seen increased scrutiny over the past few years.  In the short term, we have focused our attention on improving the safety of these spaces for all students who use them. On a more general level, we created a Title IX Task Force led by the Board of Trustees in coordination with our Vice-President for Equity and Inclusion, which is working to ensure gender equity throughout the Wesleyan educational experience. In addition, over the next several months we will be gathering information to present to the Board as it considers what role, if any, residential fraternities will have on our campus in the future.

Sexual assaults on college campuses are not, of course, only a fraternity issue. Over several years, Wesleyan has worked to reduce the incidence of assaults on campus, support those who have been assaulted, dismiss those who have been found guilty, and to generally raise awareness about these issues. As I have noted, although at Wesleyan there are usually only a handful of reports of sexual violence each year, each one is extremely painful and leaves a scar on the individual and on the community. Furthermore, we know how under-reported these crimes are across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. Michael Whaley, the vice president for student affairs, issues an annual report on “Wesleyan’s Response to Sexual Violence,” and additional information is available on the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response website. Resources and programs dedicated to this problem include:

  • Wesleyan’s Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator is a full-time member of the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services staff and serves as the point person for coordinating support for survivors of sexual assault. She works closely with the Sexual Assault Response Team – a group of trained staff and faculty who provide support for survivors.
  • We Speak, We Stand, Wesleyan’s Community of Care program, provides bystander intervention training to empower bystanders to intervene in situations involving such issues as high-risk alcohol use and sexual violence. Sexual violence is a complex and multi-faceted societal issue, and therefore requires the attention of all campus constituents.
  • “We Speak, We Stand” also leads mandatory sessions on sexual violence at new student orientation. Subsequently, new students convene for small residentially based discussions about sexual assault and alcohol use.
  • Wesleyan annually makes its policies regarding sexual violence clear to all students, faculty, and staff through communications from the Dean of Students and the Vice President for Student Affairs.
  • The Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator and Director of WesWELL have worked with student groups on a healthy relationship workshop series, a consent campaign, a “Red Flag” campaign to address dating violence, and several support group for survivors of sexual assault.
  • Wesleyan continues to work with student organizations, including fraternities, on the safety of their programs for all students.
  • The university annually evaluates its own efforts to assess efficacy and ensure that everything possible is being done to provide a safe environment for everyone on campus. We want all members of our community to be confident in the care we take in dealing with any reports and in the fairness of our procedures.

Sexual assault at colleges and universities is a national problem, and it is important to raise awareness about these heinous crimes. On our campus, we have had our consciousness raised concerning this issue, but each incident is still agonizing – traumatic for survivors and painful for the whole community. As president of alma mater and as a parent, nothing disturbs me more than these attacks. My heart aches for those who have been victimized, and I work to ensure that we do everything we can to support them.

The great majority of Wesleyans are united in wanting to create a campus unencumbered by sexual violence. In concert with our community, I am determined to explore all avenues for changing our culture to stamp out sexual assault. I will work together with all university constituencies to continue to improve our ability to care for survivors, vigorously pursue perpetrators, and create a positive campus climate in which sexual violence has no place.

The novel has been at the core of lifelong learning for generations of students, and so I am delighted that this year’s Shasha Seminar will focus on the genre. Amy Bloom, who directs the Shapiro Creative Writing Center, is leading the event, which will take place on campus April 5-6. “The Novel is not only the form of fiction I love and know best,” she writes, “but also a form that is still enormously popular and evolving with readers, whether they are e-readers, fans of the turning page or creators and readers of novels that emerge Tweet by Tweet.  This will be a star-studded feast for readers and writers, a combination of pleasure, intellectual stimulation, with provocative questions, sublime readings and some unexpected answers.” Amy’s remarkable new novel, Lucky Us, is coming out this summer, and she has gathered together a most impressive group of authors to participate in the program.

A recent Philip Roth (no relation) interview in The New York Times underscored some crucial aspects of the genre. I particularly liked this: “The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.”

In my Modern and Post-Modern course, students will soon have the pleasure of reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and in the same class they’ve already read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. These novels are among a dozen or so I’ve taught over the years in my intellectual history classes, and the political, moral and aesthetic dimensions of the works have been key to my thinking about a wide range of issues. The Shasha Seminar will provide plenty to consider in relation to fantasy, history, politics, identity, desire and aesthetics…. It surely will be a feast for readers and writers!

The Shasha Seminar on The Novel begins Saturday, April 5, 2014 with a reception lunch.  Some sessions are open and free for students, and you can find out more about the event here.

 

Did you know that Wesleyan has a marvelous photography collection to complement its first-rate collection of prints? From time to time I teach a seminar on Photography and Philosophy, and my students and I have the delightful opportunity to work with pictures in the Davison Art Center.

You still have a chance to get a glimpse into these treasures. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, an exhibition at Davison, is open through Thursday, March 6. The show is a gem, with images from famous artists alongside pictures that will knock your socks off by photographers you may never have heard of.

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If you are interested in photography, check out this exhibition, and keep your eyes peeled for future shows at Davison.

Teaching a Wesleyan course online presents me with the opportunity to interact with students from scores of different countries. I am teaching The Modern and the Postmodern in Middletown, and the course is also available on the Coursera platform. Here in what students often call the “campus bubble” our political issues often seem abstract or “first world problems.” But for students in the same class but in different parts of the world, politics (and even the intellectual issues in the class) are sometimes a matter of life and death.

Recently Arianna posted the following on our class Facebook page:

Dear friends, I want to say that what we read here is very important. The last couple of weeks I do not have time for this and I apologize to the teacher, but I’ll catch up with you! In Ukraine, the revolution now. My friends and I smell smoke, because our capital (Kiev) on fire. Texts we read here, helping to become conscious, self-reliant. This contributes to empathy and transparency.
Thank you. We will win!
(Pardon my French)

There followed exchanges that linked some of the concepts in political philosophy we are studying with the quickly changing situation on the streets of Kiev. How can a revolution be successful, especially when confronted with violence? How does a new regime establish legitimacy?

Last week it seemed that Arianna and her fellow-citizens had won. Then Russia turned its attention from making authoritarianism attractive via the Olympics to real geopolitical stakes in Crimea. This morning Arianna posted this from a friend:

“This sunny sunday morning feeling when you wake up and your country is on the edge of war. You can’t sleep, eat, feel. Yesterday Russia’s parliament officially approved the use of its military in Ukraine. The south of the country (Crimea) today is basically occupied by the russian army. What? Militaries enter the territory of a sovereign country quietly and occupy it in the 21st century just like that? “Russia, the UK and the USA undertake to respect Ukraine’s borders in accordance with the principles of the 1975 CSCE Final Act, to abstain from the use or threat of force against Ukraine, to support Ukraine where an attempt is made to place pressure on it by economic coercion, and to bring any incident of aggression by a nuclear power before the UN Security Council”, – states the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances signed in 1994. The autonomy of Ukraine was guaranteed in return on it becoming a non-nuclear state. And what do we see now? It’s hard to believe that after everything that has been happening in my beloved Motherland during these 3 months, after all those people who were injured or died fighting for the freedom and democracy, Russia de facto declares a war against Ukraine. Please, wake me up, tell me it’s just a fucked up nightmare.” my friend, Inna

There are many reports now giving a context for Arianna’s and Inna’s first-hand accounts. Timothy Snyder’s account here seems particularly helpful.

I understand that it is not clear what exactly the United States and the European Union should do to stop this blatant act of aggression against Ukraine. But let’s begin by acknowledging that Putin’s regime, the same regime that (in the name of protecting national sovereignty) is supporting the Syrian dictatorship’s murderous war against its own people, has just invaded its sovereign neighbor. These are historical nightmares, at the very least, we should not ignore.

Arianna and her friends are struggling for the future of the country, while they are also trying to build more democratic political practices. How can we show our solidarity?

 

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing one of the many fine student productions presented by the Theater Department at the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Claire Whitehouse ’14 adapted Matilde Mellibovsky’s Circle of Love Over Death and created A La Ronda, a play that focuses on the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Claire spent months in Argentina and was deeply impressed by the women who refused to forget “the disappeared,” and showed amazing resilience and courage in their struggle for social justice. The ensemble (Connie Des Marais ’17, Helen Handelman ’16, Grace Herman-Holland ’15, Aileen Lambert ’16, and Dominique Moore ’14) was terrific in this moving portrait of the will-to-remember and the effort to turn individual mourning into collective action. The faculty, Stage Manager (Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14 — who recently presented her own production) and production team must be very proud. Bravo to all! The play continues through Saturday night… And stay tuned for great thesis theater through the rest of the semester.

Nathan Repasz ’14 will be giving a recital tonight at 7 pm as part of his senior thesis. Drums will be at the core of the concert. Throughout the semester there are powerful recitals by our amazingly talented students, and I only wish I could attend more of them.

This weekend performances are waiting for you! Don’t deny yourselves the pleasures they bring!! THIS IS WHY.

Great news from swimming and diving coach Peter Solomon: Angela Slevin ’15 has qualified and is being invited to compete in this year’s Div. III NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships being held March 19th – 22nd in Indianapolis, IN.  Angela will be competing in the 1,650-yard (mile) Freestyle, 500-yard Freestyle, and the 200-yard Freestyle events during this 4-day competition.  We think that Angela is the first Wesleyan swimmer since 2006 to have qualified for the national championships.

On a frozen surface, the women’s hockey team has had a heck of a season so far. To close out regular play, the Cardinals tied Trinity in two straight games. This capped off one of their best regular seasons in many years.  The Cardinals qualified for the NESCAC tournament for the first time since the 2003-04 season.  The fifth seeding equals the team’s highest ever in the playoffs.

In women’s squash, Mary Foster ’14 was named to the all NESCAC squad for the fourth straight year. And Lauren Nelson ’15 was also honored with an all NESCAC nod. In men’s squash, John Steele ’14 had another superb season, and was also recognized by the conference for his exemplary play. Guy Davidson ’16 also was recognized for a fine season.

Shona Kerr was awarded Coach-of-the-Year honors for the second time in four years! What wonderful recognition from her peers!

Both men and women’s hockey teams are heading for the playoffs, and we wish them all the best. The “spring” athletes have been working hard for some time already, and I can imagine they are looking forward to the March break. As I left the gym last night (dragging myself out of the fitness center), I bumped into the chipper, upbeat women’s lacrosse team. They seemed raring to go, even if they had just finished what must have been an icy-cold practice. I straightened up and tried to look a little less bedraggled.

Good luck to those finishing their seasons, and all the best to those who are just getting underway!  Go WES!

Sigmund Freud asked to offer a guest blog. We posted it yesterday on The HuffingtonPost.

Sigmund_Freud_Anciano

In December I enjoyed announcing to the guards at The Jewish Museum that my name was Sigmund Freud, and that I was coming for the Wish You Were Here event. I died in 1939 (and it was enough already), but Michael Roth had been invited to speak for me, as me. Roth was interviewed in my place — not just to talk about me. He’s a historian, unanalyzed I regret to say, but he did curate a large exhibition about my work that came to the museum almost 20 years ago. How he had the chutzpah to speak as me I can’t say, but the crowd seemed to really enjoy it. He probably went too far in his nasty (but accurate) characterization of Jung, but hey, it’s a Jewish Museum.

When the museum agreed to accept the exhibition about my work in the 1990s, it was a brave act. Psychoanalysis is controversial, and at that time its detractors were making nice careers for themselves. When even the plans for the exhibition were under sharp attack, The Jewish Museum stepped forward and agreed to be a venue for the show, Freud: Conflict and Culture. This was an institution that would take risks, and so I wasn’t all that surprised in December when the head curator announced that Franz Kafka would be the next speaker in the series, and that the controversial feminist philosopher Judith Butler would speak for Kafka. I was proud to be in the museum at that moment, even in the guise of Michael Roth. After all, museums are not just custodians of culture, they should be places of active engagement. Roth tells me that Judith Butler had been wrestling with Kafka for years, and that she is among our most fertile philosophical minds. She is also a supporter of the BDS movement to isolate Israel and challenge its occupation of the territories. But she wasn’t asked to talk about Israel. She would be Kafka, and at a Jewish museum they would be able to live with that tension. Good.

But no. Roth tells me that the event has been cancelled because Butler’s politics are just too controversial. Here’s what the press release says:

While her political views were not a factor in her participation, the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended. Butler offers this comment: “I was very much looking forward to the discussion of Kafka in The Jewish Museum, and to affirm the value of Kafka’s literary work in that setting.”The March 6th program “Wish You Were Here: Franz Kafka” will not take place.

What a sad commentary on the Jewish community’s tolerance for debate these days! It’s not as if the event had to be cancelled because of the philosopher’s views on Kafka made her an inappropriate spokesperson for the writer. The fact that Butler had taken a strong stand against a particular variety of Zionism just disqualified her from talking about one of the most important writers of the last century. Now, I’m no literary critic (my tastes run toward crime fiction and the fantastic these days), but Franz Kafka would seem like just the right person to “bring back” after having spoken with me about how to understand the disguises we use to mask our conflicting impulses. But apparently, even in the New York Jewish community, culture we can debate about, but conflict over Israel we cannot abide.

Roth tells me in America today conflict is everywhere, but that people are determined to hear only from those with whom they know they will agree. Around the time he was speaking for me in New York, he wrote an angry op-ed condemning the American Studies boycott of Israeli universities, calling it “a repugnant attack on academic freedom.” Roth has known Butler since they were both young assistant professors, and he strongly disagrees with her approach to Israel and the occupation. He just doesn’t understand why this kind of disagreement should get in the way of hearing her bring Kafka back for a conversation. So now he wants to collaborate on a short essay critical of a cultural context in which a gifted philosopher won’t be able to talk about European literature because of her views on Middle East politics. You’re reading it.

Having lived most of my life in Vienna, I know a little something about conflict. It’s easier (and sometimes even necessary) to find groups with which you agree and get reinforcement for your own views. But this is a dangerous business; you can lose your ability to learn from difference and conflict — the wellsprings of real cultural development. That’s why cultural boycotts are so debilitating — whether it’s the refusal to hear from Israeli professors or the refusal to hear from an anti-Zionist philosopher. Isolating yourself from voices with whom you might disagree is also a sign (need I say it?) of your own insecurity about the views you claim to hold so dearly. Fear of your own error is often expressed as aggression against an outsider’s view.

But another op-ed? I asked Roth whether he thought people only read essays with which they knew they’d agree. Only one way to find out, he replied.

 

This review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History  appeared in the Washington Post this morning. I know there are many people at Wesleyan searching for ways to make a difference in the face of the environmental disasters of climate change. Kolbert is a thoughtful, engaged and determined guide.

 

Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” (2006) presented a powerful account of how climate change was disrupting lives around the planet. Whether the New Yorker columnist was visiting a utility company in Burlington, Vt., ice sheets in Greenland or floating cities in the Netherlands, she deftly blended science and personal experience to warn of the enormous harm created by human-generated climate change. The last chapter of that book, “Man in the Anthropocene,” underscored that we had entered an era in which human beings had begun to change everything about the planet’s interlocking ecosystems, and that we had put much of those systems and our own species at enormous risk.“It may seem impossible,” Kolbert concluded, “to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

(Henry Holt) – ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’ by Elizabeth Kolbert

In her new book, “The Sixth Extinction,” she provides a tour de horizon of the Anthropocene Age’s destructive maw, and it is a fascinating and frightening excursion. We humans have been bad news for most of the world’s living things, causing massive extinctions of species with which we share the planet. Unless we change our ways, she argues convincingly, we will certainly cause our own demise.

Until the 18th century, scientists didn’t have a clear idea that species could become extinct. Kolbert credits the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, writing in the wake of the great Revolution, with realizing that whole branches of the tree of life could permanently be cut off. Still, most of those who studied natural history were sure that extinctions happened only gradually over very long periods of time. This uniformitarian view would fit well with Darwin’s perspective on the slow and steady pace of evolutionary change through natural selection. Species did become extinct, but only very slowly as other competitors adapted more successfully to the environment around them.

This view of extinctions was definitively shattered by the work of Luis and Walter Alvarez, a father-son team who demonstrated that the Cretaceous period ended when an asteroid struck the Earth and radically changed the planet’s climate. In what has come to be called the K-T extinction, “every animal larger than a cat seems to have died out,” and things were no better in the water. The dinosaurs were just the most celebrated victims: “Following the K-T extinction,” Kolbert emphasizes, “it took millions of years for life to recover its former level of diversity.”

The scientific consensus was that things evolved very slowly, except in the face of radical events — like an asteroid crashing into the Earth. Today there is another asteroid hitting the planet, and it’s us. Slow “adaptation” in the Darwinian sense is meaningless if a creature very suddenly has to face conditions that “it has never before encountered in its entire evolutionary history.” In our age, the Anthropocene, these are the conditions human beings have been creating (very quickly) for other forms of life.

As in “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” Kolbert presents powerful cases to bring her point home. Oceans are highly stressed by climate change, for example, and acidification of the seas is driving the extraordinary ecosystems of coral reefs into extinction. Plants and animals are desperate to migrate to more hospitable climes, while others can’t survive the arrival of the newcomers. According to entomologist E.O. Wilson, whom she cites, we are now reducing biological diversity to its lowest level since the Cretaceous period.

Some of these changes have been created by our species breaking down barriers among other species as life forms tag along on our boats and planes from one part of the globe to another. Snakes in Guam, snails in Hawaii and thousands of other species brought by human beings into new environments, intentionally or not, have “succeeded extravagantly at the expense of other species.” As we make the world more interconnected than ever (“The New Pangaea”), the fatal vulnerabilities in thousands of species are exposed. The recent annihilation of bat populations in the Northeast, for example, has been caused by a foreign fungus that the animals had never encountered and so had no defense against. When a new fungus appears, Kolbert writes, “it’s like bringing a gun to a knife fight.”

The alterations initiated by human beings build on one another, accelerating change in ways that make it all but impossible for most species to adapt quickly enough. As the great environmentalist Rachel Carson put it, “Time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.” But Kolbert is not nostalgic: “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”

Kolbert devotes a chapter, “The Madness Gene,” to considering the attribute of human beings that requires change in order to flourish. Unlike other species, modern humans, endowed with language, seem driven to embark on perpetual improvement projects in the course of which they alter everything around them. “With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it,” she writes. “A tiny set of genetic variations divides us from the Neanderthals, but that has made all the difference.”

Carson, a worthy model for Kolbert, wrote of “the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures.” We are deciding, Kolbert concludes, “which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.” Our history determines the course of life on the planet. Our species changes the world, and now the most urgent question is whether we can take responsibility for what we do. “The Sixth Extinction” is a bold and at times desperate attempt to awaken us to this responsibility.

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