*The Song of the Dodo* is a very long book on what some of us believe to be a vitally important subject, the ongoing loss of worldwide bioversity. Anyone interested in the fate of the world's wild creatures and yes, the fate of the world itself should read it and will likely enjoy it.
David Quammen does an exemplary job of leading his readers through almost two centuries of significant ideas and debates related to "island biogeography," a subject which is a lot more interesting and certainly a lot more significant than it might sound. Begining with the fascinating story of the Darwin vs. Wallace story vis-a-vis "who really came up with the theory of evolution first?" Quammen goes on to explain and illustrate just why the biogeography of islands is so important to any consideration of biodiversity and wildlife conservation for the world as a whole.
In weaving this historical narrative, Quammen doesn't just encapsulate theories (though he does this in some detail), he takes his reader into the field where the sometimes abstract principles behind diversity/rarity/extinction are actually demonstrated through the predicaments faced by various creatures. Quammen ventures to the Aru Islands, the Galapagos, Madagascar, Guam, Tasmania, Mauritius, Barro Colorado Island in Panama, the Amazonian rain forest, and on and on. It's a veritable world tour of places where rare and endangered animals struggle for existence in a world where human encroachment is causing an alarming acceleration in the rate of species extinction.
Through his mostly fascinating discussion of places, species, and biologeographical theories and the people behind those theories, Quammen shows an unusual ability to restate abstruse ideas in clear and understandable terms. He also writes with humor, a gentle and humane world-view, and an excellent eye for empirical detail.
For me, the most painful chapter was "Rarity Unto Death," in which he recounts selected stories revealing how various animals (and peoples) have been lost to extinction. The discussions of the extinction of the dodo and other wild creatures are terribly sad; the horrifying tale of the demise of the Tasmanian aborigines is heart-rending and infuriating.
In the end, Quammen's workmanlike effort establishes a "big picture" demonstrating how small, isolated ecosystems render their wild inhabitants increasingly vulnerable to extinction. We come to see that the biological notion of "islands" applies increasingly not just to small land bodies surround by water, but to more and more of our continental ecosystems as they are carved up into isolated pockets of habitat through human encroachment and development. Indeed, increasingly, the world's ecosystems are composed of various kinds of "islands," a situation that threatens to result in catastrophic losses of biodiversity over time.
That the situation is not entirely hopeless for all creatures is shown by the remarkable, human-aided recovery of the Mauritius kestrel, rescued in recent years from the very brink of extinction. But certainly the message overall delivered by Quammen is not a comforting or upbeat one.
In a book of this length and scope, there inevitably will be sections that particular readers may not like. I found the chapter on theorists McArthur and Wilson a bit pedantic and boring in places, partly due to the very abstruse nature of their mathematical theories. However, it also irked me a bit that Quammen took such an awe-filled, uncritical attitude here, particularly in his worshipful presentation of his audience with the Great Man, Edward O. Wilson. Wilson is a towering figure in the history of biology and biography, certainly but a few words of criticism might have been in order here. Yes, the leftist activitists of the mid-seventies were out of line in pouring water on Wilson's head at a scientific meeting and their accusations toward him vis-a-vis his theories of sociobiology were shrill and excessive. But the truth is that some of Wilson's human-related "speculations" in the final chapter of his book on sociobiology *were* overreaching, inappropriate, and yes, foolish, and he deserved some of the criticism he received. In providing a discussion of the furor raised by the mathematical grand theorizing proposed by MacArthur and Wilson and other scientists beginning in the sixties, Quammen also could have pointed out that the often emotional debate over "mathematical modeling" vs. "detailed, real world empirical research" took place (and in some ways, continues) not just in the biological sciences but in a large number of academic fields. Whereas it's easy to dismiss extremist critics of truly useful mathematical models as narrow-minded or antediluvian, the proliferation of derivative, marginal, and in some cases, fairly useless "quantitative models" has at times threatened to eviscerate various fields of study, emptying them of virtually all attention to empirical detail and rendering them arid and lifeless.
I also was just a tad disappointed in the book's final section, where Quammen pays all too short shrift, in my view, to the question of "so what?" as it relates to the ongoing loss of world biodiversity. He makes the point that human encroachment is creating mass extinctions, but really doesn't drive home his thoughts as to why urban dwellers with no plans to visit the rainforest or the Galapagos should really care. I guess to Quammen the tragedy represented by this trend is self-evident, but what's really frightening to some of us is just how easy it is for people to live out their lives without ever having to give a darn about these broad, long-term issues of biodiversity. The question, "Why should people care?" needed atleast a bit more attention, I think.
Overall, however, this is a fine, readable, well-crafted, and wonderful book. I salute David Quammen for his accomplishment.
Over a couple of cold ones at the local pub, the good doctor and i burst out simultaneously: "I found this incredible book! You've got to read it!" It was, of course, Quammen. That's the kind of reaction this writer generates. His prose seizes your attention as he gently leads you into deserts, mountainous jungles, riverside woodlands and isolated islands in the Pacific. His quiet courage forces you to remind yourself that he's not gleaning his information from the vast list of sources in the back of this book, but from the researchers in the field. And he's right there with them as he relates their stories to him for you. Quammen writes books you want to carry around, waving at people, urging them to enjoy the superior writing and the critical message. It's all about our survival.
Quammen's resurrection of Alfred Russell Wallace was long overdue. Others have tried to bring this figure back into common knowledge, but the revival was either to accuse Darwin of plagiarism or taint Wallace's accomplishments with the flaws of penury and spiritualism. Quammen handles him as a total human being who achieved through inspiration in a delirium, what Darwin took two decades to accomplish. Quammen doesn't need to balance the two, he's more concerned with explaining the concepts in ways we can understand.
It's Quammen's ability to make you feel you are accompanying him on his quest to see how Nature that places him far above other science writers. He understands the issues, recognizes the value of the research being done and presents the methods and events alike with unblemished clarity. As a writer concerned with the impact of humanity on the world's environment, Quammen exhibits a unique talent. While the ongoing extinction of species remains the central issue of this book, Quammen is able to show how dedicated researchers given support from concerned and caring people can begin to slow that eradication of our fellow species. Quammen's concern doesn't translate into alarmist rhetoric. He calls to us softly but urgently: "There's work to be done. There's people out there doing it. Help them how you can. They're our symbol of hope."
on June 2, 1997
Spring 1997. An active volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat forced thousands to flee the island. Britain is gripped by the worst drought in two centuries. The koala population in Australia is exploding. Brooklyn's trees are being eaten by the Asian long-horned beetle. If you see no relationship among these events, read David Quammen's superb book, "The Song of the Dodo," and learn about island biogeography, "the study of the facts and patterns of species distribution."
When most people look at animals they only see the animals--tigers, tortoises, hornbills, rhinos and so on. They never ask why an animal is the way it is or how it got that way; where it came from and what it is like. Few wonder why animals are where they are and why they're not where they're not. Quammen does, so he takes readers on an intriguing and fascinating tour of island biogeography that relates the history of famous early biologists from Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Joseph Hooker to biogeographers of today like Michael Soulé and Edward O. Wilson.
Quammen's bibliography is 23 pages of references in very tiny type. Fortunately, despite years spent researching Dodo, Quammen wasn't content to spend all his time reading dry academic papers and obscure texts. Instead he broke out his hiking boots and retraced the steps of some of these explorers. He describes his personal experiences colorfully with analogies, anecdotes and descriptions. If you've been to some of the places he describes, you feel like you ought to go back to see through opened eyes. If you haven't been there, you feel like you ought to go--with Quammen's book in your backpack. Here's his description of Komodo dragons being fed a goat carcass by rangers on Komodo Island in Indonesia.
"They snarf and chomp. They gorge. They thrash, they scuffle, they tug and twist. They stir up one helluva ruckus. Within a few seconds they have composed themselves at its axis; elbow to elbow, jaws locked on the meat, tails swinging, they resemble a monstrous nine-pointed starfish. Their round-snouted faces, which looked as gentle and dim as a basset hound's until just a moment ago, have gone smeary with blood. When the goat rips in half, they split into two mobs over the severed halves and the tussling continues. They have each seized a mouthful but the mouthfuls are still held together, barely, by bone and sinew. They wrestle. They lunge for new jaw-grips and clamp down, straining greedily against the tensile limits of the mangled goat.
Much of Dodo is a long tale of complex ecological concepts woven together so that those explored in the beginning are introduced again later. Quammen's observations, historical and personal, are part text, part story. Some are humorous; some are tragic. Plan to read the book at least twice. You may want to start a notebook.
Then, when you finish reading The Song of the Dodo, you might want to take your children to a zoo or natural history museum to show them endangered and threatened animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians insects and plants. You may want to explain that some of these species probably won't be around when their children's children--your grandchildren--are adults. Some species may become extinct in your lifetime. None will ever evolve to fill the void left by extinction. There will be no new rhinos, elephants, grizzlies, gorillas, tigers or anything else.
According to island biogeographers, what islands are good at, whether surrounded by water, farmland or urbanization, is extinction. Parks and preserves just aren't large enough. Nowhere is large enough. You are living among tomorrow's dodos. Some are within a few miles of you.
The Song of the Dodo belongs on every true environmentalist's bookshelf, alongside Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac" and Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." It should be required reading in any college course that touches on the subject of environment. Quammen, who twice won the National Magazine Award for his writing in Outside magazine, deserves a far more prestigious award for this book.
(This book review first appeared as an article at [...] in the Environment section.)
on March 7, 2008
Quammen does an exceptional job of explaining why biogeography should be important to you. He offers a scientific, historical, and personal narrative. As a professional biologist, I like the accuracy in bringing theory to a general audience. For students of biology, if reading MacArthur and Wilson's paper left you a little perplexed, this is the book that will smooth out those rough edges and assure that you "get it". The book probably holds little interest for people who aren't serious science buffs, but even for interested laypersons, there is enough of a narrative running through the text to make it an easy, sensible read. Suffers from flaws of historical perspective, but none so blatant as to make this text unworthy. Highly recommended.
"Islands are where species go to die." - David Quammen, author of THE SONG OF THE DODO
This book is all about the birth, maturation, and real world applications of the science of island biogeography as it relates to the circumstances of species isolation and diversification and subsequent decline and extinction. Here, "island" means not only the obvious - a bit of land surrounded by water - but any habitat separated from the rest of the world by a geographic barrier which its resident species are unlikely to cross. "Island", then, can refer, for examples, to a lake, a remnant of rain forest surrounded by clear-cut, a temperate mountaintop surrounded by desert, a national park hemmed in by human habitation, a cave, an expanse of jungle bordered by wide rivers, or a literal island in the sea.
Island biogeography inexorably leads the reader to the concept of conservation biology and viable-population theory. You see, the rampant human population is cutting the world's diverse ecosystems into little bits - islands - thus dooming countless species living within them - especially large vertebrates - to eventual destruction.
THE SONG OF THE DODO is a lucid, erudite, troubling, and extensively researched piece of science writing by journalist David Quammen. It's biggest fault is that he just about beats the subject to death. Where, perhaps, just a few examples of past species extinction (the Dodo or the Micronesian honeyeater) and present pending extinction (the indri of Madagascar or the Concho water snake in Texas) would suffice, the author includes at least a dozen more. But, as Quammen is such an excellent writer who feels strongly about this important subject, one cannot award less than five stars. Amidst the record of both realized and threatened animal extirpations, David even manages to be humorous when his narrative becomes a personal travelogue as he journeys to exotic places to observe the pending carnage for himself, as when tripping face-first into a spiderweb on Guam ("My worst nightmares feature tarantulas the size of badgers") or getting mugged in Rio de Janeiro. About the last incident, when confronted at the local police station with the one (of three) of his attackers unlucky enough to get caught, David quips:
"He's looking at five years (imprisonment) I'm told. Cinco anos. Cinco, no kidding? that's a lot of anos, I say. Probably I should feel terrible for the young thug, on grounds of socioeconomic extenuation, but in the weakness of the moment my liberal knee fails to jerk and cinco anos sounds fine."
The most glaring negative is the lack of photographs, both of the various creatures under discussion and the scientists, past and present, who've contributed to, and fought over, the theory and practice of island biogeography.
Recently, I saw AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, a documentary on global warming. Taken together with THE SONG OF THE DODO, my pessimism is kindled to a white heat. I don't have a high opinion of my fellow man: Homo sapiens is a rapacious species ungenerous to the other life forms riding Mother Earth. We blithely defecate on our own doorstep. At some point, the planet, which will ultimately endure, will turn to Man and say, "I'll show you!" Then, as Quammen puts it:
"When we ourselves do go (extinct), the sparrows and the cockroaches and the rats and the dandelions that survive us should eventually give rise to a new inflorescence of diversity. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that represents a gloomy scenario or a cheery one."
on September 30, 2003
Why do extinctions happen? By way of answering this question, David Quammen takes an odyssey around the world to numerous islands because they are where most of the world's extinctions have taken place in modern times. He visits Indonesia, Tasmania, Hawaii, the Galapagos, Madagascar, Guam, and the former home of the now-extinct Dodo, Mauritius. As Quammen travels, he recounts the history that islands have played in the science of biology, from Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin's famous journeys to the recent dust-up over the new and increasingly popular theories in ecology that were based on the study of islands. Finally, he explains that the rapid rate of island extinctions may be a harbinger for what happens elsewhere as man increasingly cuts up and divides the world into "islands" of biodiversity.
This book does an outstanding job of mixing history, basic ecological concepts, and personal experience into a coherent theme. I recently read Quammen's book "Monsters of God" and I found this book superior in every way because of that coherence. And while I agree with some Amazon reviewers who find fault in Quammen's views on the controversy over whether Darwin or Wallace deserved first credit for the concept of natural selection, I don't think it detracts from the book. Quammen clearly finds something dishonorable in Darwin's actions during that period, but after reading two biographies on Wallace - Shermer and Raby's recent publications - I think he reads too much into it. This noticeable prejudice of Quammen's, however, is not directly relevant to his main themes and shouldn't keep anyone from enjoying this wonderful work.
This is unquestionably the finest book I've read that explains biogeography and population ecology in clear, concise English for the average intelligent person interested in the natural world who lacks a background in science. Quammen deserves highest praise for devoting much time to learn relevant science and then disseminating this knowledge to his readers. Much to my amazement, Quammen fully understands the implications of MacArthur's and Wilson's theory of island biogeography, encompassing such diverse subjects as determining the appropriate size of wildlife refuges to studying cycles of mass extinction in the marine invertebrate fossil record. He gives compelling descriptions of Alfred R. Wallace, Robert H. MacArthur, and E. O. Wilson as scientists and people, pointing out the importance of Wallace's and MacArthur's work towards our understanding of biogeography and indeed, of biological diversity. To his credit, Quammen mentions other signficiant players, such as Ernst Mayr, Daniel Simberloff, Jared Diamond, and of course, Charles Darwin himself. Mixed successfully with biography and scientific research are lyrical passages about the many islands Quammen visited in pursuit of Wallace's footsteps and ongoing important ecological research. Anyone wishing to catch more than a glimpse of great science and how it pertains directly to preserving endangered species should read this magnificient book.
on December 20, 2012
This book was not exactly what I was expecting. That's what I get for not doing my book/author research in the first place. Science writer and travel journalist David Quammen has written a rather long book on conservation biology. Using Island Biogeography as a jumping-off place, the author outlines its varied concepts like: archipelago speciation, equilibrium theory, land-bridge islands and the founder principle. He also explains how these concepts tie in with dry land "islands" such as national parks and isolated patches of forest or other environments. Utilizing science journals, interviews with working scientist and the hands-on approach of traveling to far-flung biological hot spots like the Amazon rain forest, islands like Madagascar, Komodo and Tasmania, Quamman puts it all together in his version of the "Inconvenient Truth". I really enjoyed the first part of the book as it spotlighted islands and how life somehow managed to gain a foothold on them. The biographical segment on naturalist Alfred R. Wallace made for fascinating reading but it was here I ran into my first problem with Quammen. As most people know Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and both were credited with coming up with the concept of Natural Selection. Was Darwin completely honest in his dealing with Wallace? The controversy rages to this day with scientist and historians falling into one of two camps--Darwin was honest and did the right thing when he found out about Wallace's theories or Darwin was dishonest and tried to hide and/or even stealing segments of Wallace's theory.
There is no real evidence available one way or the other. While Quammen claims to be neutral on the subject it soon became clear to me that he fell squarely into the second camp. I found many of his comments to be inappropriate and even a little offensive. Darwin was no saint, nor was he a devil and the same holds true for Wallace. They were just human and as such were subject to the same mistakes and failings that we all are. The other turning point in the book was the sudden switch from Island Biogeography to Social Science with a long segment on the cultural history of the Tasmanian Aborigines. While that was interesting in its own right, for me it was the subject for another book and not the one I was currently reading. In the latter half of the book I grew weary of the endless run of interview after interview on how various working biologist felt about the Equilibrium Theory or how the SLOSS Theory applied to their particular field of study. For me this book was a big disappointment. The final decision to buy or not to buy is, of course, yours. Any review is just the reviewers opinion so it a good idea to read several of them, both pro and con, then take the plunge (think of the famous feline alluded to in my review title). As for my recommendation? If, after you've done your home work, you're still undecided you may want to borrow the book from your local library. If you read it and don't like it, then nothing's lost but your time. If you do like it and want to add it to your collection then go for it (if I had followed my own advise I would have saved the price of this book).
I had no technical problems with this Kindle edition.
on July 29, 1999
It has been 5 months since I finished reading Quammen's book and I mourn the dodo and the ending of this book. I have read a lot of science, nature and environmental books this by far is the most compelling of all. Quammen weaves history, biology, biography and environmental issues without preaching a particular slant. The final analysis however can not be escaped - frightening, haunting and hopeful - we are the problem and we also are the solution.
on February 21, 2000
David Quammen has the makings of an excellent scientist, but I'm glad that his profession is natural history writing. The Song of the Dodo is a fascinating book in many ways. The author presents scientific ideas and scientific personae in a very clear and understandable way and at the same time takes the reader on many enjoyable adventures around the world. The story of the development of the theory of evolution, as seen from the viewpoints of many biologists, is most engagingly told. The book is serious and scientifc, but often also quite funny. The loss of biological diversity on the planet has very serious consequences for the ecological integrity of our planet, yet the book, in discussing the implications of our "age of extinction," is uplifting at the same time. I wish that everyone could appreciate the seriousness of this biological crisis--Mr. Quammen has made an excellent effort to present this subject to the interested reader. It's a wonderful book and I intend to recommend it to everyone!