NO TURNING BACK by Richard Ellis


The Life and Death of Animal Species
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A terrible and elegant portrait gallery of lost animal souls, including those about to take the off-ramp to extinction and a few brought back from the edge.

Extinction is as old as time, notes naturalist Ellis (Aquagenesis, 2001, etc.) with his typically smooth, cautious, and illuminating delivery; not all of it can be explained as the work of “Homo destructivus,” though much can be laid at our doorstep, particularly when it comes to recent extinctions. But ancient modes of extinction are far less certain, and the confusion about what might have caused them is exacerbated by the complexity and imprecision of extinction theory. (For instance, what exactly is a species, the most typical taxa used to measure extinction?) Ellis provides an exemplary overview of the debates over extinction’s causes—over-kill, over-chill, over-ill (also known as hyper-disease pathogen)—discovering often enough that the same problems that plagued earlier thinkers continue to dog those at work today. He covers the great macroextinctions, but perhaps microextinctions like those of the aurochs to the dusky sea sparrow are more digestible, occurring at a scale that readers can grasp. Accompanied by Ellis’s fine-line drawings, the text introduces us to creatures on the brink (rhinos, tigers, saiga, chiru, bilby), those that have staged a comeback (the whooping crane, Spix’s macaw), and those that have appeared out of the mists, though believed to be extinct (the coelacanth, the indigo-winged parrot). Of great interest here is the author’s discussion on the role of pathogenic, epizootic diseases like emergent viruses (think Ebola, AIDS, Marburg) that could have been as catastrophic as any giant meteor.

“Extinction is part of the evolutionary process (or perhaps evolution is part of the extinction process),” writes Ellis, who takes the necessary next step by identifying the victims and rounding up some of the perps. (70 line drawings)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-055803-2
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2004


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