Song of the Dodo

SongoftheDodoWhen I was in school, science was by far my least favorite class. (Well, except for P.E., which was not so much a class as an exercise in humiliation.) It was just so deadly dull. We memorized one thing after another with no sense of why it was important. I don’t blame my teachers (at least not all of them). They did try to make it interesting, and one of them was quite good, but I think my problem was that I could never see a story in it. It was just random facts. There weren’t even problems to solve, like in math class. It was just stuff to remember and procedures to follow.

It’s a shame too, because science is all about figuring out how the world works, and that is inherently interesting. As an adult, I often enjoy articles and books about scientific topics. Writers like David Quammen are able to show why science matters and what we can learn when we stop, ask questions, and observe. I first learned of David Quammen’s writing in a literary nonfiction class, where he was held up as an exemplar. Not long after, I read his fascinating book on man-eating predators, Monster of God. Jenny has been urging me for years to read his earlier book, Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, and now I have. It’s science writing at its finest.

Song of the Dodo focuses on what islands can teach us about evolution and what extinction patterns on islands might reveal about future extinctions in a world where animal habitats are being increasingly cut up into pieces, creating, in effect, islands in a body of land. The book is part history book, particularly in the early chapters focused on Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and other naturalists of the 19th century. It’s also a travel book in which Quammen narrates his own (and others’) journeys to tiny islands around the world to learn the story of various species as they rise and fall and, sometimes, rise again. It’s a call to arms, as Quammen sounds the alarm about shrinking habitats and the dwindling populations of the animals that live in them. Again and again, he imagines the point at which a particular species turned the corner and had no hope of continuing. Extinction does not happen when the last passenger pigeon dies; it begins far earlier, when there aren’t enough pigeons to produce a new, viable generation that can outlast potential unforeseen crises, like a drought or an infection. Which species are past that point already? Is there anything we can do?

So why study islands to get at these questions? Islands are where we can see how species come into being; Quammen explains how the age of islands, their size, and their distance from larger land masses affect the development and decline of species. The whole process is easier to see in isolation. And the problems species face on islands aren’t so different from those they face on larger continents, especially as we humans cut their habitats into pieces to build homes and fields. Quammen writes,

Island biogeography is no longer an offshore enterprise. It has come to the mainland. It’s everywhere. The problem of habitat fragmentation, and of the animal and plant populations left marooned within the various fragments under circumstances that are untenable for the long term, has begun showing up all over the land surface of the planet. How large? How many? How long can they survive?

How many mountain gorillas inhabit the forested slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, along the shared borders of Zaire, Uganda, and Rwanda? How many tigers live in the Sariska reserve of northwestern India? How many individuals of the Javan rhino are protected within Ujung Kulon National Park? This many dozen gorillas, this many dozen tigers, this many dozen rhino. The numbers change marginally, year to year, situation to situation, while the recurrent questions vary also in their particulars, remaining fundamentally the same. How many left? How large is their island of habitat? Do they suffer small-population risks? What are the chances that this species, this sub-species, this population will survive for another twenty years, or another hundred?

How many grizzly bears occupy the North Cascades ecosystem, a discrete patch of montane forest along the northern border of the state of Washington? Not enough. How many European brown bears are there in Italy’s Abruzzo National Park? Not enough. How many Florida panthers in Big Cypress Swamp? Not enough. How many Asiatic lions in the Forest of Gir? Not enough. How many indri at Analamazaotra? Not enough. And so on. The world is in pieces.

I offer that long excerpt to show you what a good writer Quammen is, how he infuses his prose with passion. He doesn’t always wax eloquent in the way he does above—that would be over the top—but he knows how to use words. He’s not just offering a dry, straightforward rendering of the facts. He tells stories, sometimes of scientists vigorously debating the best way to determine optimum habitat sizes, sometimes of his day putting down traps for island ants. He sums up research, clearing up readers’ confusion and sometimes admitting his own. He injects humor, often by making fun of himself. He does not provide answers—he says that this is a book of diagnosis, not prescription—and given that he is a journalist and not a scientist, that’s appropriate.

One of the things this book reveals about science is that it is all about asking questions and figuring out possible answers, then testing them out to see what works and asking questions about what happens. Although this book focuses on a specific aspect of scientific inquiry, a lot of what Quammen reveals about the way scientists come at questions could apply across disciplines. It shows what inquiry looks like.

The book is long and heavy with facts, lots and lots of facts. It took me several weeks to read because I wanted to be sure I was following the thread, but I don’t think the specific details are important to retain—I’ve already forgotten the names of many of the scientists and the islands and the species—what’s important is the overarching narrative. The details give color and credibility to that narrative, making that narrative something more that the dry recitation of facts that turned me off science so many years ago. Here, science is a story, a chilling and fascinating one, with perhaps even a glimmer of hope in the end.

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18 Responses to Song of the Dodo

  1. Scott W. says:

    Though I read Song of the Dodo well over ten years ago, I think of this book almost daily: whenever I see new homes going up or a new road cutting through a previously wild area, or hear someone talk about how mountain lions are coming down into suburbs in California and posing a threat (rather a backasswards view), or conservationists celebrating preservation of some small “island” of wilderness from development. Quammen’s sobering, systems approach to looking at ecologies is simply one of the best nature books I’ve read, one of those books from which one emerges with a changed view of the world. As you note, his writing is exquisite. I should read more of it, as the only other work I’ve read by him is an essay called “Street Trees” – another work I think of almost daily as I walk along urban sidewalks and marvel at how the trees manage to survive.

    • Teresa says:

      Sobering is a good word for it. It really does make you think. And I recommend Monster of God. I don’t think it’s quite as good as this, but it’s still very good.

  2. Jeane says:

    This sounds like a very sobering book, and just the kind of science writing I enjoy. I’m going to look for this one.

  3. This sounds fascinating, and so does Monster of God. I had never heard of Quammen before because he is not well-known in the UK but this sounds very interesting. how does he compare with other writers, like Jared Diamond, for example?

    • Teresa says:

      He’s only moderately well-known in the U.S., I think, not nearly as well-known as Diamond. His writing is similar to Diamond’s and similar authors in that he writes with non-specialists in mind, but I think Quammen has more of a gift for language. He’s a writer who focuses on science and nature, rather than a scientist who writes well. Interesting that you specifically mention Diamond because Quammen discusses his early work in some detail.

  4. Deb says:

    I read Quammen’s Spillover, an excellent explanation as to why and how viruses that usually infect non-human animals are starting to appear more frequently in humans (three words: Beware the bats!). You don’t have to understand too much about science to understand his underlying premises (even if, like me, you find yourself skimming over the technical details) and a long, speculative chapter about how AIDS went from one infected hunter in the early 1900s (yes, AIDS has been in humans over a century) to a global pandemic in less than 80 years is fantastic.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree that he does well at making his points understandable to those who don’t know much about science. I’d like to read Spillover at some point–I remember hearing good things about it when it came out.

  5. gaskella says:

    I’m going to check this book out. I love good science writing, and you’ve intrigued me with this review.

  6. I always look back at my science classes in high school and regret that I didn’t engage with them more. I don’t know if it’s for the reason you gave, that the classes didn’t tell a story, or if I got socialized out of engaging with science as, you know, girls do, or what. But as an adult, I love science writing. Quammen sounds great!

    • Teresa says:

      I never experienced the problem of being socialized away from science–most of my science teachers were women. I just never really saw people, men or women, doing science in an interesting way. It was all procedures and definitions with no scope for real thinking. Now I know better, and so it’s great to find writers like Quammen who help me see some of what I missed.

  7. biblioglobal says:

    If you enjoyed this one, I’d highly recommend The Beak of the Finch by Johnathan Weiner. It’s very well written and is all about scientists studying evolution as it happens in living organisms- in finches, guppies and bacteria.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll look that up. I really enjoyed Quammen’s discussions of how evolution works and how naturalists came to understand it. It would be interesting to look at it from another perspective.

  8. Jenny says:

    I’m so delighted you liked this! You are the ONLY person I have ever convinced to read this, so if any of our lovely commenters actually go read this, you’ll have done way better than I did. :)

  9. Christy says:

    The role of islands in the study of evolution came up when I was reading Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. I think this book would be an interesting read. As the book was published fifteen or so years ago, did it seem dated at all? I don’t know how fast evolutionary research progresses.

    • Teresa says:

      It didn’t seem particularly dated to me, although I’m sure there have been advances since it was published. One things that helps is that it’s structured around the history of the how scientists have come to understand evolution and extinction, rather than focusing entirely on what we know now.

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