It’s not my voice, it’s probably not yours, but it makes itself heard in the arenas of public opinion, querulous and smug and fortified by just a little knowledge, which is always a dangerous thing. So what if a bunch of species go extinct? it says. Extinction is a natural process. Darwin himself said so, didn’t he? Extinction is the complement of evolution, making room for new species to evolve. There have always been extinctions. So why worry about these extinctions currently being caused by humanity? And there has always been a pilot light burning in your furnace. So why worry when your house is on fire?
Song of the Dodo, page 605.
I’ve just finished reading The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, by David Quammen. Overall, I was very impressed.
The book mixes at least three types of narrative in telling its story. It explains hard, cold ecology. The science, the theories, how they work, etc. Why certain species need larger or smaller areas to exist. Why islands are such a cradle of biological diversity and the first to fall apart when humans alter the environment. Why some islands have exceptionally tame animals, and why non native species can wreak such havoc when they find themselves in a new home. In fact, I would recommend it as one of the best books I’ve come across to explain what basic ecology is to a lay person.
Secondly, it gives tons of real life examples, both from the past and the present, of species which illustrate the concepts that he delves into. The Dodo (naturally), the Passenger Pigeon, the lemurs of Madagascar, Komodo dragons and pygmy elephants, the adaptive radiations of honeycreepers and fruit flies on the Hawaiian Archipelago, and many, many more. The stories are interesting. Many of them I knew about at least vaguely from my background in science. Even then, I constantly learned new things.
Finally, he gives a good bit of historical background to the movers and shakers that brought these understandings to the world. Men like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (Quammen loves Wallace), Robert MacArthur, and E.O. Wilson. The history was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me, because while I’d previously learned much of the science (at least the basics!), I was ignorant of the people and circumstances under which it came back about.
Quammen’s writing style is wonderful, as I’ve mentioned before. He manages to take a subject which can be tedious and explains it in ways that are interesting, funny, and engages the imagination of his audience. I particularly was impressed with the skill of his writing. He’s just got a gift when it comes to putting words together.
That’s not to say that I liked everything in the book
One of the areas that I think Quammen really makes a stretch on is his speculation on the timing of Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s theory of natural selection as the driving force behind evolution. It’s a complicated story, one that a historian would love. But essentially, what Quammen implies is that Darwin received a draft on natural selection from Wallace and held onto the paper not wanting his own work to be preempted.
The problem is that the evidence for this is scant, and Quammen admits that this view is held by a small minority of historians. The controversy centers on the timing of the arrival of a ship carrying Wallace’s manuscript, and the time it took for that manuscript to reach Darwin. (Wallace and Darwin were friends of a sort and corresponded). One historian in particular makes the claim that Darwin held onto this manuscript for at least a month, before passing it onto Charles Lyell (the famed geologist) as Wallace had requested.
Whatever actually happened, a meeting was held at the Linnaean Society where both men were given credit for the idea. This was something that Wallace seemed very appreciative of, as his stature and reputation was far less prominent than Darwin’s.
While Quammen readily admits this doesn’t prove Darwin’s guilt, I think he feeds the fires of speculation a bit too much. Even if Darwin held onto the manuscript, his thoughts on natural selection seem to extend back in time long before Wallace came to the same conclusion. Why would it then be a controversy for the two men to share credit? If anything, Darwin could have easily squashed Wallace’s paper and claimed the idea totally as his own. That he didn’t makes the accusation of foul play all the more questionable.
Still, this is a very short section of the book; a few pages out of 600. Besides these minor quibbles, Song of the Dodo is an excellent read. Anyone in the mood for learning a little ecology and natural history would do well to pick it up.