When 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.