Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review

Taking a break from American history reading, I decide to learn a little something about evolution and delve into one of the most exciting books I’ve read in years, “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen. It’s a relatively old book, published in the mid-’90s, but it’s all new to me and written with the wry zip of a born cut-up. Couldn’t put it down.

The book is named for the dodo because that bird was one of hundreds of island species that went extinct not so terribly long ago, about the end of the 17th century. It had evolved without the need for wings – no natural predators, until Europeans arrived on Mauritius and found it easy pickin's. Quammen records that the name “dodo” possibly comes from a nickname given it by Dutch sailors, meaning (roughly) “lard ass.”

Ole Lard Ass opens the door to a history of the study of evolution. Charles Darwin got himself to islands to discover the species that began to open his eyes, as did Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s chief rival for the claim of thinking up the “origin of species.” Quammen assumes that Wallace got to the truth first but received no credit for it, partly because he was a rank amateur and Darwin was the revered professional. “Islands give clarity to evolution,” says Quammen: “Islands have been especially instructive because their limited area and their inherent isolation combine to make patterns of evolution stand out starkly.”

Quammen is not a mere armchair adventurer. He’s followed the footsteps of those pioneering biologists, petted the marine iguanas of the Galapagos, hunted the invasive brown tree snakes in the dark of Guam, nearly had his butt amputated by a Komodo dragon on the island of Flores in the nation of Indonesia. Those and dozens of other eye-witness accounts enliven this book.

If the sum total of Quammen’s reportage is melancholy, and if you’re particularly susceptible to the ecological blues, you might want to focus on the subtitle of this book before plunging in: “Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions.” Scientists who study ancient bones have charted a series of five mass extinctions of species going back to the late Ordovician period (440 million years ago), followed by one in the late Devonian period (370 million years ago) and then the Permian extinction 250 million years ago, which eliminated more than half the extant families of invertebrate marine creatures, and the mass extinction at the end of the Triassic period (about 215 million years ago) and then the Cretaceous extinction 65 million years ago, which claimed the last of the dinosaurs. Human life had no hand in any of these because human life did not yet exist.

But in the later millennia of the Pleistocene epoch, only tens of thousands of years ago, a sixth mass extinction of animals got underway and is still continuing today, helped along by the appetites and hobbies of mankind, since this most recent extinction began about the time that humans began hunting in armed and cooperative packs.

“Eons in the future,” Quammen sums up, “paleontologists from the planet Tralfamadore will look at the evidence and wonder what happened on Earth to cause such vast losses so suddenly at six points in time: at the end of the Ordovician, in the late Devonian, at the end of the Permian, at the end of the Triassic, at the end of the Cretaceous, and again about sixty-five million years later, in the late Quaternary, right around the time of the invention of the dugout canoe, the stone ax, the iron plow, the three-masted sailing ship, the automobile, the hamburger, the television, the bulldozer, the chain saw, and the antibiotic.”

Quammen’s section on the extinction of the passenger pigeon is especially poignant, since these mountains harbored so many millions of them up through much of the 19th century. They gave their names to hundreds of places called “Pigeon Roost” in Ohio, Indiana, and in Watauga County, N.C., among dozens of other places. They were “harvested” by the thousands by teenage boys and by their fathers as a kind of prank, knocked off their roosts at night with sticks. It was so easy, killing them. The last confirmed wild passenger pigeon was shot dead in Sargents, Ohio, on March 24, 1900. The very last known, formerly wild passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

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