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.