POSTED 6 OCTOBER 2005
Sing, dodo, sing!
The Song of the Dodo, by nature writer David Quammen, ensnares us with a narrative so irresistible that we won't notice, let alone mind, the blizzard of facts, theories and arguments that are swept along on interlocking tales of discovery, adventure and intrigue in the wilds of the Earth.
Quammen starts "The Song ..." (see bibliography) by retracing the long journeys of biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the discoverers of evolution. Quammen is in Indonesia, where he's teamed up with Bas, a Dutch ornithologist who's one of many funky field biologists who populate the book. Notice how Quammen snags our attention:
"Bas led me off to a street stall for rajak cingur, which turned out to be cow snout and bean sprouts in muddy gravy. The cow snout was acceptable, but the thick orange drink he recommended for washing it down -- something called jamu, resembling a barium cocktail flavored with buttermilk and garlic-- was a onetime experience, thanks."
After that, who wouldn't want to jump on for the ride, especially since we gentle readers know we'll be protected from putrid local beverages by distance -- and perhaps a clenched jaw?
By the time we're 50 pages into Quammen's entertaining read, we've followed him follow Wallace. We've observed the slow, anguished working style of Charles Darwin. We've seen the halting explanations for plant and animal diversity that scientists were discussing before 1859, when Darwin published On the Origin of Species. We've met a crateful of the strange critters found only on islands, and seen the key role of islands like the Galapagos in the study of evolution. As Quammen says, Wallace and Darwin deduced that "the answer to the riddle of evolution was best sought by a study of islands."
And that brings us to a classic scientific melodrama: By 1856, Darwin had been wrestling with a developing theory of evolution for 20 years. After serving as naturalist on the ship Beagle in the 1830s, he'd published accounts of his voyage and his discoveries, and hinted that he might have figured out the mechanism of evolution. He'd kept his ideas private, until he suddenly learned that Wallace, a nobody species collector living in the deep jungle of the East Indies, had apparently come to a similar conclusion. Would Darwin -- already a big wheel of Victorian science -- be upstaged by a guy who'd never been to Oxford or Cambridge?
Song of the Dodo is stitched together from columns Quammen wrote during his long tenure at Outside magazine, but the thread is so fine, the sewing so masterful, that the result is not a patchwork quilt, but an epic description of evolution and biogeography: how species arise, why species live here, but not there, and why some species are dead.
Photo: Government Printing Office
Song, of course, is named for the dodo, a flightless bird from Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island. The dodo was too tasty and too trusting to escape the sailors who stopped by Mauritius to provision their ships in the 16th and 17th centuries. The dodo went, and became the early emblem for extinction.
By looking backwards, we can sometimes see the future. As an ever-expanding number of people "conquer" ever-more wildlands, biological diversity is compressed into scraps of land that are, biologically, much like islands. The varieties of nature are condensed into a preserve here, a park there, some idle land across the river that we haven't yet found a use for. The result is rapid extinction: species tend to go extinct for many reasons when small numbers are confined to small areas.
Biologist warn that we are in the midst of a wave of extinction that could rival the one that obliterated the dinosaurs. You may account this a cheap price for progress, or you may condemn it as a crime against nature. Either way, The Song of the Dodo will help you understand it.
Read on with Goon Park.
Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive