David Quammen's book, The Song of the Dodo, is a
brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope,
far-reaching in its message -- a crucial book in
precarious times, which radically alters the way in
which we understand the natural world and our place
in that world. It's also a book full of entertainment
In The Song of the Dodo, we follow Quammen's keen
intellect through the ideas, theories, and experiments
of prominent naturalists of the last two centuries.
We trail after him as he travels the world,
tracking the subject of island biogeography, which
encompasses nothing less than the study of the origin
and extinction of all species. Why is this island
idea so important? Because islands are where
species most commonly go extinct -- and because, as
Quammen points out, we live in an age when all of
Earth's landscapes are being chopped into island-like
fragments by human activity.
Through his eyes, we glimpse the nature of evolution
and extinction, and in so doing come to understand
the monumental diversity of our planet, and
the importance of preserving its wild landscapes,
animals, and plants. We also meet some fascinating
human characters. By the book's end we are wiser,
and more deeply concerned, but Quammen
leaves us with a message of excitement and hope.
Quammen (Natural Acts) has successfully mixed genres in this highly impressive and thoroughly enjoyable work. The scientific journalism is first-rate, with the extremely technical field of island biogeography made fully accessible. We learn how the discipline developed and how it has changed conservation biology. And we learn just how critical this field is in the face of massive habitat destruction. The book is also a splendid example of natural history writing, for which Quammen traveled extensively. The Channel Islands off California and the Madagascan lemurs are captivatingly portrayed. Equally impressive are the character studies of the scientists who have been at the forefront of island biogeography. From his extended historical analysis of the journeys and insights of 19th-century biologist Alfred Russell Wallace to his field and laboratory interviews with many of the men and women who have followed in Wallace's intellectual wake, Quammen delightfully adds the human dimension to his discussion of science and natural history. Using a canvas as large as the world, he masterfully melds anecdotes about swimming elephants, collecting fresh feces from arboreal primates in Brazil and searching for the greater bird of paradise on the tiny island of Aru into an irreverent masterpiece. That a book on so technical a subject could be so enlightening, humorous and engaging is an extraordinary achievement. Author tour.