No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species by Richard Ellis

Wesley Burnett

Another day, another couple of dozen extinctions. Our calluses are so thick that the word extinction no longer riles even the most strident creationist.

No Turning Back

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 432
Subtitle: The Life and Death of Animal Species
Price: $29.95
Author: Richard Ellis
US publication date: 2004-08

The theory of evolution troubled Victorians as much as it still troubles modern creationists. But even modern creationists fail to appreciate that the idea of extinction -- the disappearance, naturally or otherwise, of a species -- bothered Victorians as much as the idea of species mutability. We've come this far: We can still argue about evolution but nobody doubts extinction. Why? Extinction happens before our eyes. It can't be denied. It's commonplace. Ho-hum, another day, another couple of dozen extinctions. Our calluses are so thick that the word extinction no longer riles even the most strident creationist.

In fact, extinction is troubling in both fact and in theory. There is a lot to be said about it, but even with that said, extinction remains baffling. In No Turning Back Richard Ellis guides us along the many troublesome paths that radiate from the word extinction. His tour is interesting but resolves little. In the end, we are more perplexed than in the beginning, but such is the price science demands.

Ellis draws a distinction between macroextinction and microextinction. Macroextinction wipes out nearly everything in an instant while microextinction is that constant background, a slow process that takes out a species here and there and eventually gets everything. This background extinction is really perplexing but interesting mostly to specialists. The gene is very conservative and not prone to alter itself at a whim, yet environmental change is constant. Faced with environmental change, most species will not adapt, but follow their environmental niche to the grave. Nice bit of theory but it doesn't explain which species go next or why? Or why some species are so immutable while others are as mutable as putty. Or why this species seems to endure forever while that one is but a flash in the pan of time?

Macroextinction has captured the popular imagination mainly because dinosaurs have captured the popular imagination, and dinosaurs disappeared in a spectacular mass extinction. Not THE most spectacular but at least one of the top five or six. And not all the dinosaurs either, just most of them. You can look out the window and watch the surviving dinosaurs fly by.

The explanation for macroextinctions seems simple enough. If slow, constant environmental change leads to gradual extinctions, really fast environmental change must result in really rapid extinctions. The problem is that orthodox Darwinism resists catastrophes as an explanation for change so Darwinians have spent a lot of time trying to explain mass extinctions in terms of every day events. That's not been easy.

But what do we mean by routine change? Does a catastrophe last 10 million years, a million years, 100,000 years or is it a really bad afternoon? Recently, earth scientists have produced evidence associating macroextinctions with some pretty catastrophic events like Earth's collision with an asteroid of exceptional size. There, the problem is solved. It was a bad afternoon.

Well, nothing in science is that simple. To use the extinction of the dinosaurs as an example, it is clear Earth took a nasty hit around the time the dinosaurs disappeared. They might have disappeared that afternoon or say 300,000 years before that afternoon. There is a difference. Besides other bad things were happening about then, anyway. The planet was getting a lot colder, and there was a fury of volcanic activity. And a lot of things besides dinosaurs were going extinct about at the same time.

That's very satisfying. But in geological time about doesn't meanat the same time as. Did an asteroid shake up the planet enough to trigger volcanoes? Which came first? Were dinosaurs and other things going extinct at the same time and in response to the same factors or could the dinosaurs all have died of cold and diseases shortly before the asteroid struck? Why would alligators and crocodiles survive a cataclysm dinosaurs couldn't? The little, nocturnal, primitive mammals might have survived hidden in subterranean burrows hidden. That's a good hypothesis. But then explain why birds survived the same cataclysm while sitting in treetops.

All this takes up about a third of Ellis' book. The remainder concerns the sixth -- or present -- great extinction and deals with case studies of critters from the auroch to the wisent that have gone extinct in the last 15,000 years, are currently on the brink of extinction or have been pulled back, if only temporarily, from that brink.

There are two things that become apparent in these essays. First, the road to extinction is seldom straightforward and simple. Extinction seldom results from a single causative factor. Rather, several events and circumstances come together to lead to extinction. Likewise, rescuing something from extinction seems to require manipulation of more than one environmental factor.

Second, humans are at least partly to blame for almost all extinctions in the past 15,000 years or so and probably a batch of them, including some of our human ancestors, before that. We may pound the last of a species to death with a club, we may alter that all important niche space, or we may kill subtly by introducing our diseases or the diseases of our domestic animals. We don't have to use a gun to kill elephants. The tourists can just give them human tuberculosis. For nature, we are the new asteroid, the current catastrophe.

Ellis has produced a nicely illustrated, highly readable text on a complex, technical topic that is a current, hot topic in science or nature studies. This is the most recent in a series of exceptional nature/science books issued by HarperCollins and several of these have been reviewed in PopMatters (The Secret Lives of Lobsters, The Geese of Beaver Bog, and Becoming a Tiger.) We need to be reminded constantly that the planet's salvation is not entirely dependent on rapid economic growth.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.