Customer Reviews: No Turning Back: The Extinction Scenario
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on January 13, 2005
"No Turning Back" is a hybrid of several other books on the subject that I have read: "Extinction-Evolution and the end of man" by Michael Boulter, "The Sixth Extinction" by Richard Leakey, and "Song of the Dodo" by David Quammen. Interestingly enough, the blurbs on the back cover are for other books written by Ellis, not this one. His thirteen or so previous books all dealt with sea life.

Ellis is an excellent writer. This book is well-researched and full of interesting facts. You would think that I would know a thing or two about extinction judging from the books I have read on the subject but I learned a lot from this one. For example, hyperdisease is a disease capable of wiping out an entire species. Irrevocable evidence of just such a disease has been found in the most recent bones of Mastodons. It is assumed by the timing of the epidemic to have been spread by people and their dogs. We may be witnessing the same thing with the frogs of the world. I do not want to give too much of the book away, but you can count on seeing lots of good tidbits like this.

Anything a lay person would want to know about the topic of extinction in general is covered. He also talks about species that have been brought back from the brink, the probability of resurrecting extinct species, and new species that have been discovered. If you do not already know much about extinction, this book will be fascinating.

Personally, I am less interested in ancient extinction events than in finding solutions to halt the one currently in progress. Ellis finishes his book with the standard ominous suggestion that humanity may be positioning itself for extinction. This warning bell has been ringing out since 1962 when Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring." You would think (as we head for the half-century mark for her book) that the concept would have taken hold, but it hasn't, strongly suggesting that it never will. The wolf may be coming, but the warning has lost its effect over time. The debate over using DDT is raging all over again.

Missing from the book, as with most other books like it, are innovative suggestions for how to end this event. It has been estimated that for about 28 billion dollars enough critical habitat could be bought or leased to protect 70 percent of the known plant and animal species in the world. Our current attempt to establish a democracy in Iraq has already cost us five times that much. Such is human nature.

It is also human nature to form into groups complete with a geographic boundary and a label. These boundaries are called countries. All through history, in times of war, the areas adjacent to the warring parties widen into what is called a no man's land. Given time, these off limits areas are taken back by nature. This has happened in the no man's land between the two Koreas and it is an excellent example of what happens when human beings are kept out, in this case, by warring factions. No one goes hungry in South Korea just because that piece of land is not farmed. Whereas the hunger found in North Korea is caused by its poor economy. Will our technology explosion outstrip our population explosion? Can we find ways to stay housed and fed without destroying the rest of nature?

I highly recommend Ellis' book. It is by far the best I have read on the subject of extinction.

Russ Finley, Author of "Poison Darts-Protecting the biodiversity of our world."
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on March 14, 2011
The book intends to be a broad compendium of extinction, beginning with prehistoric mass extinctions, then going forward in time to its main emphasis on man-made extinctions. The book can really be separated into parts I and II, which report and speculate on prehistoric extinction theories, and part III ("Finale") which accounts for 2/3 of the book and is a fairly haphazard menagerie of extinct or critically endangered species. The entire book skips around a lot, most evidently in Part III, which makes it difficult to follow. It is as if the author summarized all the articles he had in his file cabinet - the files simply being "mammals" or "oceans."

The book is an interesting, if winding, road through various "fun facts" of extinction. That said, the author misses the mark on some of his arguments - most notably his speculations about the Pleistocene mass extinctions. Despite correlating these extinctions with human migrations, he insists that most Pleistocene megafauna were killed by "hyperdisease," This, despite the author's inclusion that "no disease known to science is capable of killing off an entire species," let alone several - all of which happen to be large and very huntable.

The book also displays a shocking number of taxonomic errors. Most striking is the glaring misunderstanding of what a subspecies is - inexcusable for a biological author. Species and subspecies are confused routinely. Sentences such as "There are three distinct species and one subspecies" are understood by biologists to be patently wrong. Within the same bewildering paragraph, the author describes two forms of tigers, followed by a sentence describing eight subspecies, five of which are living. Then two pages later, he describes the "Chinese Tiger" as extinct, even though two of his extant subspecies were the South China and Indochinese Tigers. Confusing and sloppy writing like this is evident throughout the book. Other gems include giving two different genus names to the same shark in back-to-back sentences, and stating there are "three subspecies of gorillas" on one page (gorilla, graueri, and beringei), while mentioning a fourth (diehli) just a page before. These are the sort of mistakes usually dispelled in Biology 101.

Also, there is an inordinate amount of "guilt-tripping" about extinctions. Statements such as "we tried our best to kill off the great whales" seem a little too much for me. The book is written as if you and the author are responsible for the death of these animals. I understand the tactic here, but it is used far too much in the book - enough to be repetitive.

Not recommended, except for a compendium of small tidbits of trivia - most of which you will have to verify independently.
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on June 30, 2006
In "No Turning Back", Richard Ellis conjures these emotions for the sole remaining members of species soon to be extinct, such as the last passenger pigeon or the last Carolina parakeet, which finished out their lives in zoos. It is not the animals themselves who feel the lonely demise of their DNA, their unique genetic make-up, their strings of molecules that are never to be known on the Earth again--Ellis does not anthropomorphize, the animals have no idea that they represent the last of their kind--but humans who have viewed the last of these species and have known that this is it; there will be no more. There is the odd case here and there when a migrating species has been reduced to such a low number that the few remaining individuals--still engaging in their migratory behavior--return to breeding grounds to find that they are all alone. They carry on, though, back and forth through their migratory cycle until they die of natural causes or other events. These few survivors cannot know that they are the last of their kind, but they must know deep in their genes that something is terribly wrong.

It is all very sad, and such a waste.

Ellis spends a great deal of the book discussing recent man-caused extinctions. This testimony is the most disturbing, especially when modern extinction events are dwarfing those massive extinction events that occurred deep in geologic time, extinctions that may have been caused by astronomical events or geologic upheavals; that humans are capable of such destruction. It is all very sobering. Too often, a dying species is known to be on the brink, even by the least educated among us, yet the killing goes on against tigers and elephants and rhinoceros and apes... Ellis works to downplay the notion that an extinct species somehow deserved its extinction, as if its inability to adapt quickly to the rise of Homo sapiens shows that it is inferior in some way.

The book does not just describe human-caused extinctions--Ellis discusses historical extinctions as well, and calls into question some recent theories such as the Cretaceous asteroid impact. How could this event affect only dinosaurs, leaving just about everything else virtually intact, including many fragile species? He applies this question to many of the periodic extinction events, with one sure conclusion: There must have been much more going on than we are aware.

Overall, this is a very informative book; its modern chapters are akin to Douglas Adams' "Last Chance to See" in the wasteful finality of it all, but the book is organized poorly and is difficult to read. Ellis jumps back and forth, from birds to mammals and then back to birds again throughout the book, as if the book were pasted together from remnant articles collected over a period of time (and perhaps this is the case). He mentions the "K-T Extinction...which wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs" so many times that I lost count, and I wondered why he kept bringing it up.

Read the book as a reference resource for extinction events, but be prepared to be at it for a while: the book is very dry.
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on September 14, 2014
No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species (2004) suffers the same problems that has plagued other books written by Ellis: an excessive use of quoting and - at least for cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) - dumb mistakes. The first several chapters deal with extinctions and why they may have occurred. Here Ellis goes in circles, telling you the same theories again and again, often quoting article abstracts (which make me suspect he didn't even bother read much of the articles themselves). In later chapters he tries to cover the plight of as many species as possible, but in the process says almost nothing about certain species or how they really went extinct. When dealing with cetaceans, he apparently forgot what he had even said in earlier works (e.g., he once again forgot that the Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg was settled well before the first overwintering in 1633-34) and doesn't appear to read his sources closely enough (e.g. Ellis believes Omura's whale, only described in 2003, must be very rare because the majority of the paratypes were caught in the East China Sea - where a lot of modern whaling occurred - when in fact they had been taken near the Solomon Islands, where very little modern whaling actually took place). Ellis also has a problem with dates, stating that British bowhead whaling in the Davis Strait region ended around 1860, when it didn't end until several decades later - you would think someone who wrote an entire chapter on this subject in an earlier book (Men & Whales, 1991) would recall this? If he made such silly mistakes on a subject he's published extensively on, imagine all the mistakes he's made throughout the book? That's a little scary to think about. What could've been a very interesting read turned into a struggle to finish. Had I not been reading other books at the time I probably wouldn't have finished it at all. I wouldn't really recommend this book to anyone - unless you want to write an essay on all the mistakes that Ellis probably made, that is.
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on May 11, 2009
After reading the review from the raving egotist who gave the book one star simply because Mr. Ellis doesn't think he's as smart as his mom told him he is I thought that I should write one too, but I'll keep it short.
If you are interested in nature, science, etc. and are looking for an engaging, casual book to spend some time with you'll learn a lot from this one.
The book is written for the Average Joe and is in Average Joe language, so if you believe that you're the guy Einstein stole all his ideas from you might find the book too simplistic, but if you're a normal person who likes reading about science the book will keep you entertained.
Oh and watch out for Steve Alten. He's apparently been getting into dad's special Kool-Aid again.
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on October 24, 2012
Note: I received this copy via Netgalley

Ellis looks at the various factors that have contributed and still are to the extinction or the species being threatened. The majority of this book deals with extinction that has occurred in the past and what might transpire (or inevitably will at the rate we are going) in the future. Ellis is able to masterfully bring science to the everyday individual. While some parts are still dry Ellis mixes in a variety of interesting anecdotes and facts from modern things.

One of the key points people should take from this book is just how much of an impact humans have had on bringing forth the extinction of species and moving the process along.

Also: [...]
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on December 20, 2012
A book explaining the scientific evidence for evolution. It is an easy to understand book for the majority of folks.
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on October 4, 2012
Recieved a copy for review.

I first learned about the Tasmanian Tiger (or Wolf) when I read The Guinness book of Animals. It sounds very cool. Wolf-like but with markings resembling a tiger, it is a marsupial. I got to the end of the entry and read those heart-breaking words -"believed extinct". Oh, the hope in that word believed. You have no idea how long I lived in denial land after reading that. I still, in my weaker moments, liked to believe that a lost colony of them will be found (I told you, denial land. You know the place where Jude Law turns into a marriageable man and proposes to me. Now tell, which one is more likely? The survival of the Tasmanian Tiger or Law no longer being a philandering nurse tupper?) Even today, when I go to the Natural History Museum in DC, I still get a small thrill from looking at the specimen on display. The only time I ever feel some like it is when I go to the National Zoo and catch site of the Maned Wolf. I'm the crazy chick who says, "Look, you can see their ears!"
Ellis' book, written and first published in 2004, deals with extinction, extinction that has occurred and that might occur. In short, this means it is not happy reading, though it is written for the non-scientist. Yet, despite the heaviness of its subject matter, it should be required reading for those who inhabit the earth.
Ellis does look at the most famous extinctions - dinosaurs and dodoes. He takes a close look at the "debate" surrounding the extinction of the super-sized reptiles. He doesn't seem to take a side and presents the information in such a way that any non-scientist person (like idiot me) can follow it. Honestly, if I had Ellis talking to me about dinosaurs, I would've found them far more interesting.
The bulk of the book, however, is on the extinctions that have been hastened or totally caused by humans. The dodo does get mentioned, but the focus is on lesser known animals. He deals with birds, mammals, and, of course, ocean life. Not only does the reader hear the stories of the well-known condors but also of the lesser well known, like the Saiga (a deer with a large nose) or Chiru. More importantly, Ellis looks at the various factors that contribute to the extinction or the species being threatened. He goes beyond the "no hunting! No Chinese medicine!" chants. For instance, I knew about rhino horn being used in Asia for supposed medicinal benefits [Ellis points out that there is actually a foundation for this story, and points out that it is only rhino horn that has the benefit and that Advil would work better], but I didn't know that some rhino horn (primary white and black) were in demand as the hilts for weapons, in particular in the Middle East. And it isn't just using horns and animals as food and art supplies, it is also diseases that can harm animals, such as West Nile and its effects on Whooping Cranes.
Being Green is in today, but in many ways we don't fully realize the impact that we have beyond the obvious ones. It is important to read this book because every child has that animal, that one real animal that sparks their interest in the species - be it tiger, lion, or bear. Wouldn't it be horrible, if after having that interest sparked, the child discovered that the animal had been killed for medicine, art, or stupidity?
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on July 18, 2010
No Turning Back changed my views on protecting threatened species. I never had much use for spotted owls or snail darters or threatened toads until I read Ellis' book. I was shocked by a couple of things. One, everything eventually goes extinct. Now that I think about it, that makes sense; but I assumed we humans would be around for a while. Two, what jerks humans are. The way we hunt stuff down till we wipe the species out is pitiful. I'll be more of a conservationist from now on. Read the book, learn something.
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on August 16, 2008
I am amazed that Ellis mentions his scathing review of MEG in this book. The LA Times actually hired him to do a hatchet job on my first novel, after LA Times book review editor Steve Wasserman became upset with Bantam Doubleday for using an LA Times reporter's quote, "JURASSIC SHARK" on the front cover. Ellis attacked MEG in its unedited advanced reading copy form, criticizing everything from typos to its title, to ocean dynamics, stating (para-phrasing) "only in Alten's topsy-turvy world could warm water exist beneath icy depths" and "that no hydrothermal vents exist in the Mariana Trench."
Really? What first grade science primer is that taken from? NEWSFLASH: Warmth, originating from hydrothermal vents DOES exist beneath cold layers! And salinity/density determines ocean layers, not temperatures! As for vents existing in the Mariana Trench - guess what? In 2003 they discovered HYDROTHERMAL VENTS in the Mariana Trench just as I had stated in 1997! And yet you still decided to mention your lambasting quote in this book?
Stick to painting and writing books, Mr. Ellis, and quit using my name and my works of FICTION to help sell your work.
--Steve Alten
NY Times best-selling author of the MEG series.
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