While not at all a newly published work, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction is on my top ten list of must reading for anyone working in or having a passion about environmental science and/or the natural systems at play on this planet. Written a few years back for a graduate course, I recently came upon this write-up and thought it important to share. It’s a bit long but, hopefully, informative enough to encourage you to add this book to your library.
Book Review: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction
Author: David Quammen
Scribner, New York
702 pages (including Index)
Maps by Kris Ellingsen ©1996
Modern naturalists are quite challenged in practicing their craft. Not only are they expected to have an overall comprehension of many natural and physical sciences, naturalists also must be able to communicate to others what they have studied, researched and observed. In a world where so many professions are specialized, the naturalist must be a generalist and, in doing so, can at times find it daunting. It is no wonder that a naturalist’s library consists of numerous reference works, journals, research studies, field guides, essay compilations, how-to manuals and text books, not to mention fossils, rocks, skulls, feathers, shells, dried plants, seeds, etc. There is so much to understand; so much to remember.
Biogeography, the study of the patterns of distribution of organisms through space and time, is a subject area encompassing a number of disciplines including, but not limited to, physical geography, evolutionary biology, geology and ecology. When applying biogeography to islands (a rather recent avenue of natural science), new pathways of understanding on how ecosystems function and respond are opened up even further. As a naturalist becoming more familiar with this realm of study, I have found biogeography a perfect synthesis of the many areas of focus worked with each day. While often botanical or zoological studies isolate factors to establish cause and effect, in the natural world this is rarely the case and biogeography recognizes this perspective of life on planet Earth.
David Quammen’s book, Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, is a work which attempts to compile the history of biogeography and its “island” descendant while detailing research and real-life examples of these areas of study. We also are presented with compelling and sometimes stark tales of anthropogenic related extinction, particularly from the aspect of the island land form. The reader, like biogeography itself, is transported through time and space in this “literary science book” meeting the big and small players whose work proved important in formulating island philosophy of species distribution and the dynamic forces represented there. From Wallace, Hooker and Darwin to MacArthur, Wilson, Franklin and Soulé, we are introduced to the leading and supporting cast while visiting Madagascar, the Galapagos, Malaysia, and the Florida Keys, among others. In addition, Quammen ties in present day application of island biogeography in a world with shrinking wild habitat so patchy, in fact, that even continents are now dotted with ever-increasing examples that mimic oceanic islands.
It is not easy to assign a style of writing to Quammen. He is a writer with varied interests (including politics and travel) but is primarily renowned for his work on natural sciences. He has written several books, both non-fiction and fiction, along with a series of magazine articles for Outside and National Geographic and is the recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing and multiple National Magazine Awards, among others. But do not label him an environmental essayist or a nature writer because according to Quammen, “…’environmental essay’ is not a term I would ever use for anything I write, or anything I take pleasure in reading. If I do read anything that justly deserves that label, I’d be doing it from a sense of duty, not literary interest. I’m a crank on this subject: I also loathe the term ‘nature writing,’ or anyway loathe having it applied to what I do.” Instead he half-jokingly refers to some of his work as “political ornithology” (Buntin, 2008). Whichever the case, Quammen has notoriety, and a good one at that, according to David Thomas Sumner of Weber State University who in remarking on the author’s work with Outside stated, “During this time, he gained a reputation with readers for making natural science understandable and relevant, and with scientists for getting it right” (Sunmer, 2001).
But what of Song of the Dodo? The book was made possible, in part, by a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1988 with which Quammen purchased a ticket to Madagascar (Buntin, 2008). His research also took him to places like Indonesia and Tasmania. He shadowed researchers and hired local naturalists in these journeys and even what on the surface seem to be small details have been recorded in the book. The tome is written in a haphazard but not confusing way as the reader goes from a first person account to historical essays and biographies that help explain island biogeography’s place in the modern world. While the subject matter could easily be complex in dispatching the details, Quammen’s writing removes the scientific jargon without losing the connotation making this book totally accessible to even a teenager. And often a chapter ends in such a way as to encourage the reader to continue on – you just want to know what happens next.
We learn early on why islands are unique in comparison to continents, not only geographically but also biologically. In chapter three, Quammen takes us on an excursion to Bali where we learn of a local tailor who is instrumental in obtaining Quammen a ticket on the ferry, get intimate knowledge of the village in which the author lands, and share a meal with a Dutch biologist with whom Quammen will travel. Then we begin to slip subtly back in time to Wallace, Columbus and, daresay, Noah, as Quammen relates the conception and infancy of biogeography.
Early earth science, it seems, was rooted in the Bible and often scientists and historians would apply their data to uphold biblical accounts. But it was not always easy – sometimes the glove just did not fit. How does an explorer like Captain Cook explain exotic animals found on his voyages throughout the world which were not accounted for by Noah on his Ark? What were they and how did they reach these far-flung places from Mount Ararat? And what of the strange animals that had no comparable relative in Europe – monkeys, parrots, kangaroos, hummingbirds, dodos? So unusual were the animals encountered in this age of overseas exploration that some map makers took to drawing them on their maps – macaws on Brazil, parrots on Africa and bison on North America. In me, this last one has sparked some curiosity. Europe does have its own species of bison called the Wisent (Bison bonasus), a smaller cousin to the American Bison (B. bison). It’s been established that habitat loss and hunting placed great pressure on the Old World ungulate. And World War I nearly wiped out all remaining Wisent (Trapani, 1999). However, when depicted on a North American map by Guittierez in 1546, had the European variety already been extirpated from so much of the continent that it was virtually unknown to the mapmaker (and the voyagers)? Could this be why the American variety seemed so unique? This is yet another aspect of the book. For as much detail as it contains, it still lures the reader into further research on such side topics. But despite the confusion over species and biblical accounts, it was a naturalist, Johann Reinhold Forster (who accompanied Cook), who would be the first to make note of the area-species relationship on islands – larger islands had more species than small ones.
One especially intriguing theme in this book includes the many pages devoted to the Wallace/Darwin duel of who was the first to deduce natural selection. The Wallace/Darwin debate is very thoroughly researched by Quammen. So much detail is incorporated, including personal histories, that the reader truly gains an intimate perspective of both scientists. Quammen handles this controversy quite carefully but I came away with the perspective that Wallace was probably robbed of his due. Although not clear as to whether underhandedly achieved or not, Darwin, for all intents and purposes, historically has been given the honor. But Quammen’s research clearly shows that Wallace, at least publicly, was far ahead of Darwin in putting the pieces together on speciation and why it occurs when he published in 1855 a paper entitled “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species.” Quammen includes a passage from the paper where Wallace wrote, “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.” Charles Lyell took notice as at minimum it challenged the concept of special creation, although initially Darwin dismissed the paper in the mistaken thought it supported the creationist concept. But as Quammen tells us, Wallace’s findings likely gnawed at Darwin and after receiving his first correspondence from the “junior” scientist (who was seeking the established naturalist’s insights), Darwin alluded that he’d had these ideas for years although had yet to compile his notes for publication. And so, it would seem the race to claim the fame of natural selection was started by Darwin himself which may lend credence to Wallace supporters. As Quammen continues his writing of Song of the Dodo, he gives equal billing to these two “fathers of evolutionary theory”, using both their names when referencing their theory(ies) of speciation.
Part history book, Song of the Dodo spends a great deal of time outlining the birth and adolescence of island biogeography and it is done so in quite an interesting way. A combination of research “re-enactments”, quotations and scientific data are woven throughout the book as we travel through time on a trip of evolutionary discoveries. Definitions are proffered when needed and complex concepts, such as what is a species, are broken up into smaller chunks and explained well, using excellent examples to further understanding. Case in point, Quammen takes great pains to differentiate between phyletic evolution and speciation. Why is this important? Simply put, phyletic evolution occurs over time where speciation can have distance and space as factors. When discussing island biogeography, distance (i.e. isolation) can be a driving force in terms of speciation. It is also important to distinguish between the two for this book because for nearly 60 years, geographic isolation was dismissed as a driver of speciation. It is this type of detail disseminated in layman’s language that makes this book quite accessible.
Another aspect of the book that makes for enjoyable and interesting reading is the descriptive nature of the various places we visit. So vivid is the narrative, if the reader should close his or her eyes, it is easy to experience the sounds and smells of a bustling village, sense the feel of rock under foot, readily visualize a star-filled night sky and be surrounded by exotic panoramas. This same type of depiction is used to introduce us to the many side characters the author encounters on his journeys (guides, agents, etc). In several cases we are presented with very personal details on an individual’s life, including deaths, births, spouses, children, upbringing, etc. Quammen’s background does include travel writing so he’s had to earn his keep by describing landscapes and distant ports of call. And perhaps it’s his experience in journalism that gives him the ability to tease out intimate details from the various people he meets up with, which also extend to historical characters, such as Wallace and Darwin, with whom he’s quite obviously not acquainted.
One person in Madagascar with whom Quammen becomes fascinated is the self-made naturalist, Bedo. This young man spent his childhood and adolescence combing the Analamazaotra reserve near Perinet and was THE person to seek out to learn about the many species that called these forests their home. Scientists and tourists alike called upon Bedo for his expertise, including Quammen. The author, like others before him, is in awe of Bedo’s depth of knowledge and innate ability to find the most elusive of animals, including the prized Indri, the singing lemur of Madagascar, which is also an extremely threatened species. It is sad to learn that Bedo meets a tragic end, not by one of the wild animals, but by human hands. This may seem shocking to some but those of us familiar with devotees of wilderness know that murder is not that rare among conservationists working in the field. Immediately one thinks of Joan Root who was shot in Kenya while working to end poaching (Seal, 2010); Joy and George Adamson, famous for their work with African lions and who died years apart in separate incidents of murder (PBS Nature, 2011); and probably most famously, Dian Fossey who labored for many years in Rwandan gorilla conservation and became a presumed victim of those who opposed her vocation (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, 1999). Events such as these stand out due to the victims’ high visibility and apparent selfless lives they led. However, it is a distressing reality that the most dangerous species to humans on Earth is humans, something of which I continually remind people who are plagued by fear of wild animals. Human victims of wild animal attacks are rare; human victims of intra-species violence are, sadly, common place.
Song of the Dodo, for all its wonderful writing and information, ultimately is a disturbing book. It culminates with the reality of present day mass species extinction due to human activity. Quammen makes this clear with the amount of material devoted to a more recent entry into the world of science, Conservation Biology. This branch of biological science was spirited into being as island biogeography demonstrated threats to species survival and further grew as continental “islands” of habitat showed similar patterns. The vast majority of threats come from anthropogenic land use (i.e. habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species introduction, over-harvesting, etc.). From conservation biology, the concept of minimum viable population has arisen and in itself has brought about its own controversy. If we look to preserve species based on theoretical quantitative measurements, is this truly ethical and can we guarantee its accuracy? Can we really dismiss a species for future survival should it fall below a hypothetical numerical mark? These are hard questions with no easy answers. Quammen illustrates the danger in making such decisions with the work of Carl Jones in the restoration of the Mauritius Kestrel. This species, based on the viable population concept, would have been dismissed for preservation work due to the few that remained in the wild. In fact, the kestrel actually was slated to be sentenced to extinction by the International Council of Bird Preservation when it decided to end an ongoing rescue project. But Jones fought for this rare raptor and brought it back from the brink through creative work and determination. The same could be said of the Mexican Gray Wolf which at one point was reduced to only seven surviving individuals in the 1970s, certainly not a sustainable population in the eyes of viable population theory proponents. Even today, the Mexican Gray Wolf is still the most endangered mammal in North America and the most endangered subspecies of wolf in the world, yet conservation efforts are working and the population is growing, despite lack of cooperation by the federal officials who are thought to be failing in their duties to uphold the wolf’s status as an endangered species (Lobos of the Southwest, 2009).
Herein lays the problem of modern day species protection, related habitat conservation and restoration. We humans are dictating who lives and who dies, either consciously or unconsciously, but these decisions are one-sided based on what we perceive is best for humans. The current reality demonstrates that we’ll do some work, so long as it does not require major life style change or economic and/or political forfeit. Quammen gets at this problem in his Author’s Note at the end of the book stating, “If you really want to do something, a healthy first step might be to prepare yourself for the cold shock of sacrifice.” I am not sure most humans have the capacity to do the work which will be required to help with the survival of fellow species. And to complicate matters all the more, there are the nagging effects of climate change, which Song of the Dodo does not really discuss. Given the lack of political and personal resolve to combat climate change, which quite likely will cause humans real trouble, how much can we expect any positive anthropological response to the continued existence of other species? For a species who considers itself the most advanced and intelligent on Earth, it certainly seems blind to the fact that the mass extinction of others may inevitably lead to its own demise.
Anthropogenic attitudes toward the intrinsic value of other species is illustrated clearly with Quammen’s story of the Dodo on Mauritius where some of the earliest European accounts surround the bird’s homely appearance, assumed lack of intelligence and usefulness as food – it would seem no effort was made to determine what role this flightless relic played in its home ecosystem. And as we hop from Tasmania to Hawaii to Guam, Quammen illustrates the sensitivity of island species through the dramatic loss of bird populations. But to demonstrate the human element of these extinctions, the author injects the nearly incomprehensible loss of the Passenger Pigeon, whose worldwide population may have exceeded any other bird species and which was not restricted to island habitats. To this reviewer, the paradox is quite unambiguous; for a class of animals so appreciated by millions of people around the world, bird species have suffered tremendously at the hand of Homo sapiens.
In his interview with Buntin forTerrain.org, Quammen makes a strong statement about the direction humanity needs to go in order to deal with our negative effects on the planet. “The conservation movement doesn’t need more money; it needs more people who understand the ineluctable interconnectedness of life on Earth,” he affirms Why this seems to be a difficult concept for our species is lost on this naturalist, but it is just such a relationship with our planet that needs to be cultivated in terms of the future of so many species, including our own.
A follow-up to Song of the Dodo, updating us on some of the conservation and restoration work covered while incorporating the looming effect of climate change, would be a wonderful addition to Quammen’s body of work. He has an easily discernible way of getting to the heart of the science and issues that can potentially turn the mindset of humans a bit more outward. I certainly plan to read some of his other writing and look forward to more of his frank, direct and fascinating insight on our planet and its future.
Buntin, S. B. (2008, January). Terrain.org. Retrieved November 27, 2011, from http://www.terrain.org/interview/21/
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. (1999). Dian Fossey In-depth Biography. Retrieved November 28, 2011, from http://gorillafund.org/page.aspx?pid=380
Lobos of the Southwest. (2009). Lobo History. Retrieved November 28, 2011, from http://www.mexicanwolves.org/index.php/history
PBS Nature. (2011, January). Adamson Timeline. Retrieved November 28, 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/elsas-legacy-the-born-free-story/adamson-timeline/6147/
Seal, M. (2010, March 26). Murder in the Bush. Retrieved November 28, 2011, from Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1260845/Murder-bush-Wildlife-film-maker-Joan-Root-threw-protecting-African-lake-called-home–passion-cost-her-life.html
Sunmer, D. T. (2001). Weber, the Contemporary West. Retrieved November 27, 2011, from http://weberstudies.weber.edu/archive/archive%20C%20Vol.%2016.2-18.1/Vol.%2019.1/Sumner_Quammen.htm
Trapani, J. (1999). Animal Diversity Web: Bison bonasus. Retrieved November 27, 2011, from http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Bison_bonasus.html