Posts in Category: Books

Etymology of the Word Avocado

Posted Sep 8th, 2006 at 8:42 am in Books, Odds and Ends | 5 Comments

Several years ago while rambling along the potholed roads of Mexico, my compradres and I began a discussion on the etymology of the word avocado. We all thought that it sounded Spanish but knew it wasn’t since the Spanish word for avocado is not avocado.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book lately that my sister gave me. A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer by Michael Preston. Sailing around the world in the late 1600s to early 1700s, Dampier wrote a book that popularized the travel narrative in England. His work was very influential for people like Jonathon Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, and Charles Darwin’s The Origin.

Anyway, while reading the other night, I discovered that he gave the first English account of avocados[1]. They were reported by the Spanish to have aphrodisiac qualities (what didn’t the Spanish report having aphrodisiac qualities?), and the book had this footnote:

The word avocado originates from a Nahuatl Indian (Aztec) word meaning “testicle,” a reference either to its shape or to its aphrodisiac qualities.

There you have it. A little something to make you laugh the next time you have avocados or guacamole (the etymology of the latter is Spanish I believe).

[1] He gave the first account for many things, which I’ll cover in my review when I’m done reading the book.

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Song of the Dodo Review

Posted Jun 17th, 2006 at 7:26 pm in Books, Evolution, Nature, Science | 3 Comments

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.

Song of the Dodo — Vivid Writing

Posted Jun 3rd, 2006 at 1:43 pm in Books, Nature | Comments Off

I mentioned that I was reading The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen and how impressed I was with his writing.

It’s unbelievable. I could spend all day sitting in front of a computer and not write one page as well crafted as this entire 600 page book.

I’ve included three excerpts that serve as an example of what a master wordsmith he is. I’ve changed the order a bit, as the first excerpt appears after the last two in the book. It’s an example of good, fun writing. But it’s the last two that are truly moving. The last excerpt is Quammen’s exploration of how the last dodo might have died. It is purely imaginary, though entirely plausible. I’ve reread it over and over, and I can’t describe the feeling of sadness and anger that it envokes in me. I truly feel as if I’m there, watching the last dodo breathe it’s last breath.

Today there has been an extra distraction, not quite so routine. His ladyfriend, a bright and serious plant ecologist named Wendy Strahm, is momentarily miffed at him. She has reason to be. Within the tall adult body of Carl Jones there lurks a strain of feckless schoolboy, and that schoolboy had appropriated the shipping box from Wendy’s computer to serve temporarily as a pigeon cage. Wendy’s computer had meanwhile gone on the fritz and needed to be shipped away for repairs, which sent her hunting for the box. Of course the pigeons had shat in it. So there was hell to pay — a little hell, nothing dire, nothing irreconcilable, but Jone’s hell-paying account was already overdrawn. Jones merely ducked his head guiltily when Wendy stormed past us through the compound, and then with a nervous smirk he suggested we walk to the beach.

Now we’re on the coast, and the coast is clear.

Song of the Dodo page 276.

The vividness of the Iversen1 episode is somewhat misleading. The crux of the matter of extinction — the extinction of Raphus cucullatus or any species — is not who or what kills the last individual. That final death reflects only a proximate cause. The ultimate cause, or causes, may be quite different. By the time the death of its last individual becomes imminent, a species has already lost too many battles in the war for survival. It has been swept into a vortex of compounded woes. Its evolutionary adaptability is largely gone. Ecologically, it has become moribund. Sheer chance, among other factors, is working against it. The toilet of its destiny has been flushed.

Song of the Dodo page 274.

Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn’t know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction.

Song of the Dodo page 275.

1 A Dutchmen who killed several dodos for food in 1662 and was the last person to have ever reported seeing them alive.

Komodo Dragons Evolved To Eat Pygmy Elephants

Posted May 29th, 2006 at 8:12 pm in Books, Evolution, Nature | 6 Comments
Komodo Dragon

I’m reading The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen. It’s an excellent book.

In what I’m reading now, Quammen spends some time discussing dwarfism and gigantism and the factors that cause it. (It’s complex, I won’t try to recap). In one of the most fascinating things I’ve come across in a while, he discusses the historical diet of Komodo Dragons (which are really just mind boggling huge monitor lizards).

The question, you see, is what would allow a Komodo Dragon to get so mind boggling huge. A problem arises. While they currently eat deer, goats, and pigs, these animals have only recently arrived to the islands on which Komodos live. Thus the lizards have been around much longer than their food.

One of the disadvantages to becoming as big as a Komodo Dragon is the amount of food needed. Lots and lots of food. Small birds, furry rodents, and buzzing insects just won’t cut it.

It seems there’s only one big animal in the fossil record worth eating if you’re a Komodo Dragon — pygmy elephants.

There are actually two species of small elephant known from the fossil record, occuring in the areas where Komodos now exist. The smaller of the two was only 5 foot high, around the size of a modern cow. The ancestral Komodo Dragons first arriving would likely already have been large monitor lizards. At first, juvenile elephants would have been their meal ticket to survival as the selective pressure to grow bigger pushed their gigantism.

The hypothesis on the historical food source of Komodo Dragons has been advocated by no less than Jared Diamond. (Yes, the ecologist and Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond). It was originally suggested by an earlier biologist named Walter Auffenberg, who conducted the landmark study on Komodo Dragons in the early ‘70s. Diamond reviewed the evidence and made a case for this hypothesis.

If this hypothesis is false, the fossil record has left no trace of what ancestral Komodo Dragons feasted on. But the idea is intriguing. To me it’s these little tantalizing wonders that make science so fun. I mean, whose heart doesn’t warm a little at the thought of a monstrously big monitor lizard crunching on the bones of a baby pygmy elephant?

And so of course that raises the next question. How did elephants arrive on an island in the first place?

The answer is just as worthy of it’s own post but in short, they swam. Quammen also devotes some discussion to this fascinating topic, including well documented accounts of modern elephants swimming at sea. There were a couple that were documented swimming from a small island to Sri Lanka in 1954. A few years later, a mother and her calf made the same swim in the opposite direction. Reports of elephants swimming to islands exist elsewhere in India, Cambodia, and Kenya.

A more sensational example, which may or may not be true, is an elephant which was reported to have been lost overboard from a ship approaching South Carolina in 1856, and to have swum the remaining 30 miles to shore.

But the best evidence comes from the fossil record. For example, the Channel Islands off the coast of California (I’ve been there to see Island Scrub-Jay by the way) sported a species of pygmy mammoth (yes, the irony is ripe). Scientists assumed that a land bridge was responsible for their presence, yet a closer look revealed that the water between the island and the mainland was deep and that no land bridge ever existed. Also telling is that many other species around during the Pleistocene which left good fossils on the mainland do not occur on the islands. If such a land bridge existed, their absence is not to be expected.

So there you have it. Two good hypothesis that Komodo Dragons ate pygmy elephants and that elephants colonized islands by swimming. See — science is fun!

We Took Possession According To Our Customs

Posted Feb 20th, 2006 at 7:44 am in Books | 4 Comments

On Monday nights, a group of biology graduate students and professors have gathered to discuss a book. It happens to be my all-time favorite book, one that I’ve already read. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, is an ambitious attempt to explain the why the world came to be as it is. That is, why certain societies came to have guns, germs, and steel and others didn’t.

One of the things I’ve been reflecting on is the way our cultural identity affects the way we perceive reality. A particularly stark example follows from two opposite perspectives. In 1835, the Maori of New Zealand arrived in the Catham Islands, some 500 miles to the east, where they proceed to annihilate the local inhabitants, the Moriori.

Listen to the way a Moriori survivor describes the event.

[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep… [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves, in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed — men, women, and children indiscriminately.

Guns, Germs, and Steel – page 53

Now listen to the way a Maori describes the same event.

We took possession … in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and other we killed — but what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.

Guns, Germs, and Steel – pages 53-54

The justification is terrifying to me. In accordance with our custom. This was a normal response to discovering a new people.

Such atrocities have also happened in Christendom. Diamond retells the tale of Francisco Pizarro’s encounter with the Incan emperor Atahuallpa on November 16, 1532. An astonishing 168 Spaniards bested an army of 80,000 Incans without the loss of a single soldier. Diamond tells of the event by weaving together the eye witness accounts from six of Pizarro’s companions (including two of his brothers). It’s lengthy, but attention grabbing.

The prudence, fortitude, military discipline, labors, perilous navigations, and battles of the Spaniards–vassals of the most invincible Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord–will cause joy to the faithful and terror to the infidels. For this reason, and for the glory of God our Lord and for the service of the Catholic Imperial Majesty, it has seemed good to me to write this narrative, and to send it to Your Majesty, that all may have a knowledge of what is here related. It will be to the glory of God, because they have conquered and brought to our holy Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens, aided by His holy guidance. It will be to the honor of our Emperor because, by reason of his great power and good fortune, such events happened in his time. It will give joy to the faithful that such battles have been won, such provinces discovered and conquered, such riches brought home for the King and for themselves; and that such terror has been spread among the infidels, such admiration excited in all mankind.

For when, either in ancient or modern times, have such great exploits been achieved by so few against so many, over so many climes, across so many seas, over such distances by land, to subdue the unseen and unknown? Whose deeds can be compared with those of Spain? Our Spaniards, being few in number, never having more than 200 or 300 men together, and sometimes only 100 and even fewer, have, in our times, conquered more territory than has ever been known before, or than all the faithful and infidel princes possess.


Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vincent de Valverde to go speak to Atahuallpa, and to require Atahuallpa in the name of God and of the King of Spain that Atahuallpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain. Advancing with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the Indian troops up to the place where Atahuallpa was, the Friar thus addressed him: ‘I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like manner I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book. Therefore, on the part of God and of the Christians, I beseech you to be their friend, for such is God’s will, and it will be for your good.’

Atahuallpa asked for the Book, that he might look at it, and the Friar gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open the Book, and the Friar was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper he threw it away from him five or six paces, his face a deep crimson.

The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, ‘Come out! Come out, Christians! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God. That tyrant has thrown my book of holy law to the ground! Did you not see what happened? Why remain polite and servile toward this over-proud dog when the plains are full of Indians? March out against him, for I absolve you!’


If night had not come on, few out of the more than 40,000 Indian troops would have been left alive. Six or seven thousand Indians lay dead, and many more had their arms cut off and other wounds. Atahuallpa himself admitted that we had killed 7,000 of his men in that battle. The man killed in one of the litters was his minister, the lord of Chincha, of whom he was very fond. All those Indians who bore Atahuallpa’s litter appeared to be high chiefs and councilors. They were all killed, as well as those Indians who were carried in the other litters and hammocks. The lord of Cajamarca was also killed, and others, but their numbers where so great that they could not be counted, for all who came in attendance on Atahuallpa were great lords. It was extraordinary to see so powerful a ruler captured in so short a time, when he had come with such a mighty army. Truly, it was not accomplished by our own forces, for there were so few of us. It was by the grace of God, which is great.

Atahuallpa’s robes had been torn off when the Spaniards pulled him out of his litter. The Governor ordered clothes to be brought to him, and when Atahuallpa was dressed, the Governor ordered Atahuallpa to sit near him and soothed his rage and agitation at finding himself so quickly fallen from his high estate. The Governor said to Atahuallpa, ‘Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the Christians who come with me, though so few in number, I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours, and have defeated other more powerful lords than you, imposing upon them the dominion of the Emperor, whose vassal I am, and who is King of Spain and of the universal world. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and of His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host. When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you by coming to your land by order of his Majesty the King of Spain. Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian.’

Guns, Germs, and Steel – pages 69-74

After keeping Atahuallpa captive for eight months, and promising to release him in return for ransom, Pizarro collected enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long, 17 feet wide, and 8 feet high — the largest ransom in history. Pizarro them executed Atahuallpa.

My reaction to reading an account like the Spaniards give is visceral. But it’s also inspiring. It’s a reminder of how easily you can put yourself and your cultural understanding in front of others. And in being reminded, it makes you a little more aware and little more careful to prevent these feelings from sneeking in uninvited.