The Song of the Dodo by David Quamen : Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

Here’s a book so good that it’s worth writing about. 

"Island Biogeography" is an odd place to find an author with such broad appeal, but David Quamen pours so much of himself into the study of the subject that it’s hard not to like him, and the subject he’s so passionate about. 

Biogeography asks why species are located where they are. This is a question that pre-dates Darwin, and since genetics, has evolved into a mature body of knowledge as to how species come into being, how they adapt, and how they go extinct. 

Islands are useful, says Quamen, because they offer simplified ecosystems. As you read along you’ll follow Quamen through the history of biogeography, and to the most remote islands. You’ll watch adaptive radiation, dispersion,and speciation take place in turtles, elephants, birds and iguanas. You’ll witness an island repopulate after being wiped bare from volcanic eruption, and walk in the footsteps of the naturalists who built the field of biogeography up to where it is today. 

And why should we care about island biogeography? 

I’ve got two reasons, and these are the same two reasons I’d recommend the book.

The first reason is abstract and allegorical. I find the theory of evolution compelling because it is an approach, not an answer. Simply by having the theory in mind, we can come to understand very complex systems.

Eons of cause and effect have presented us with the world as we know it today, and in following the first scientists to question their assumptions and untangle the puzzle of biodiversity I felt empowered to hack through the Gordion knots that tie up my own business and personal life. And so I’d recommend the book because I found that I could apply lessons in biogeography to my life, and hope that others may as well. 

The second reason to recommend the book is direct and pressing. Quamen wrote this book for a reason! Spoiler Alert - the realization that drove Quamen to write this book, it seems, relates to a simple line of logic that he presents throughout the book. This goes as such: 

(1) There is a specific and proven species:area ratio that dictates how many species a given island can support. The smaller the island, the fewer the species that island can support. Also, smaller populations per species. This leads to greater vulnerability and higher rates of extinction.

(2) In short, species go extinct more quickly on islands then they do on any mainland. 

(3) However, even with conservation in mind, we are developing mainlands into islands through roads and planned pockets of protected forest. 

(4) As such, studying extinction on islands is a useful way to understand a rash of bewildering extinctions we have increasingly seen on mainlands.

And so, the second reason to recommend this book is because it contains a compelling argument that what happens on islands is happening on mainlands, and that even us laypeople can learn from our past to protect our future.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The good news is that we have over a century of science towards understanding the causes and context of extinction; most of this being recent work. This is still a young field and I think Quamen shares an optimism about the future. The title of his book uses the phrase “In the Age of Extinction’ to refer to our era today. While he doesn’t come out and say this, I read this as hopeful - if we currently in the Age of Extinction, then there just may be an Age after Extinction as well. 

Book review by Jake @ sr4