Travel Culture: Essays on What Makes Us Go

By Carol Traynor Williams | Go to book overview

Popular Science on the Road:
Adventures in Island Biogeography

MICHAEL BRYSON

DAVID QUAMMEN'S newest book, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions ( 1996), merges the genres of travel narrative, scientific history, and nature writing and is a recent example of what I like to call "science on the road." Quammen, a veteran science journalist, takes his readers on a traveling adventure of truly global proportions--we visit Hawaii, Tasmania, Madagascar, Malaysia, the Manaus "Free Zone" in the Amazon rainforest, the Galàpagos Islands, the Baja peninsula of California, Guam, and countless other islands (and islandlike patches of landscape) around the world. The Song of the Dodo is thus not only an engaging narrative, but also a well-researched primer on evolutionary theory as well as a detailed introduction to a wide range of current ecological problems--landscape fragmentation, insularization of species, small-population jeopardies, extinction, and ecosystem decay. As we visit various island ecosystems around the world, we come face-to-face with unusual (and, in the case of the Komodo dragon, frightening!) animal species, talk with a number of engaging field scientists, and meet many local inhabitants whose knowledge of the natural world complements and often eclipses that of the professionals. By interweaving the history of island biogeography--the study of the facts and patterns of species distribution--with a modern-day journalist's ten-year odyssey, Quammen educates us in the theory and practice of evolutionary ecology, and sounds a timely warning about the disturbing rate at which so many of the earth's species are disappearing.

Quammen's overall argument is fairly straightforward: "islands give clarity to evolution," he notes (Quammen 19), something Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace came to realize in the mid-nineteenth century. Islands thus function as microcosms of evolutionary processes: biogeographers have long noted the extraordinary profusion and variety of life that develops on islands. Plants and animals often assume shapes, proportions, and behaviors that are nothing short of fantastic, and these developments happen more quickly on islands than elsewhere.

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