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Final thoughts on “Song of the Dodo” (student guest posts)

“Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen.

I first read “Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen when I was beginning my graduate career.  I had just started working toward my MS degree, and the book influenced my decision to pursue a PhD.  Although the science of conservation has moved on from some of the ideas discussed in the book, it still provides a nice summary of the biodiversity crisis, the history and development of some major ecological and evolutionary ideas, a window into the diversity of scientific methods and approaches,  and perhaps most importantly – manages to convey the excitement of ecology and infect the reader with the passion of the scientists involved.  In five years of using the book in my non-majors course on conservation and biodiversity, the student responses have been overwhelmingly positive.  Certainly there are a few students that dislike it, particularly because it is long and requires a big time investment, but most students find it interesting and each year a few students always find it tremendously inspiring.  In fact, every year I have at least a few students that rank it among the best books they have ever read.  Below are some selected thoughts of students after reading the book.


An exhaustive journalistic work

Quammen’s book struck the right note of hope in its final pages and did a service to readers by pointing them to research directed at answering the all-important “What can be done” question. As a journalist, Quammen is right to acknowledge that his job can only ever be descriptive, “diagnostic” as he calls it, and not prescriptive. The tough job of devising solutions to human-caused habitat degradation/fragmentation and extinction is best left to the field ecologists, researchers and modelers of the world, many of whom Quammen introduces us to in Dodo. It is comforting to know that such a colorful, impressive cast of characters is hard at work on behalf of the world’s endangered species and ecosystems, even if the particulars of their work remain a little fuzzy to non-scientists. The exhaustive journalistic work Quammen does in Dodo is valuable precisely because it brings the science into somewhat sharper focus for lay readers, who have a hand, to a greater or lesser extent, in informing the public policy and civil society decisions that affect biodiversity. This is, of course, the same reason it is valuable to offer a course like Biodiversity and Conservation to non-majors like me: to encourage intellectual curiosity and foster a concern for threatened biodiversity in those who are not immediate stakeholders. As someone who hopes to work in a university setting one day, albeit in a decidedly non-scientific field, I found it meaningful to see how science is practiced at the university level by taking this course at this late point in my academic career.



Looking past ourselves

The final section of David Quammen’s “The Song of the Dodo” has a very simple point: each and every species is going to go extinct. There is an inherent dynamism in the natural world that cannot be reversed. Humans, for better or for worse, are a part of something much greater than we personally can conceive. The implications of imagining our inevitable mortality are hard to swallow; the implications of imagining our way of life, our societies, our entire species going extinct are essentially impossible.

Our comparable intelligence allows us to know far more than we can readily perceive with our immediate senses. With this, we claim to know how ecosystems work and how species fit together. We grant ourselves the ability to control the environment in both positive and negative ways. We destroy species, so naturally we can save them. We envision that cloning will one day bring the thylacine back from extinction. We play God in an effort to avoid the realization that we one day will also fall.

This is not to excuse the immediacy of anthropogenic harm to the natural world. The Gaia hypothesis envisions the world as ever existing, before, during, and after human effects. The world functions as a whole, with humans as a major, but not sole part. Even if the world persists long after our inevitable decline, in the immediate realm – the realm that we as humans can actually conceive – we must act to minimize our impact. Granting rights and value to species for non-utilitarian purpose may be politically impossible, but morally it is necessary.

I doubt that we will see a major value shift any time soon. It will take major anthropocentric catastrophe to cause humans to change their motivations and stop consuming at such a rampant level. Conservation programs offer a glimpse into a world where nature, and the non-human, can be valued for something other than our own needs. We want to “Save the Whales” not solely for our own enjoyment and tourism, but because the whales deserve to be saved. In the short term, we appeal to human health and needs, but in the long term we must look past ourselves.



An adult female northern muriqui (woolly spider monkey). (Photo: wikipedia, Paulo B. Chaves)

Trading a brotherly hug

I did it. I finished the entire book. I read all 628 pages and it didn’t disappoint. I really liked The Song of the Dodo.  I was continuously surprised at how brave David Quammen was for a journalist/writer. I certainly would not be brave enough to climb a vine in order to get a story, but his passion/dedication was evident throughout the book. One of my favorite sections was when he went to Montes Claros to study the muriquis and got the chance to see firsthand and speak with scientists that were studying their reproductive habits. I was surprised to find that the female muriquis are dominant, and that there was little reproductive competition among the males. I had imagined the image that Quammen describes: males butting heads, growling. The image of the males instead “trading a brotherly hug” is much nicer! I definitely wouldn’t have wanted Strier’s job of collecting muriqui feces, however the dedication she had for this important form of data collection just reaffirms her passion – something evident in all of the scientists profiled in this book.

So what?” begins the last chapter: a very simple question, but one that carries extreme weight. As we lose a large portion of the planet’s biological diversity, individual species are not all we are losing; we simultaneously lose “a large portion of our world’s beauty, complexity, intellectual interest, spiritual depth, and ecological health.” This section also examined the major effect that humans have played in extinctions and raised the strange concept that one day Homo sapiens might go extinct. It is a weird idea to think about. As Quammen mentions, extinction is natural, so why do we think that we are immune to it? It puts things in perspective for me.



A Mauritius kestral. (Photo: wikipedia)

Acquiring the evidence along with Quammen

With this final blog post comes a final reflection on David Quammen’s very lengthy book on island biogeography entitled, “The Song of the Dodo.” The last two sections of the novel focused on Quammen’s personal voyage through the islands of Aru, the reestablishment of the kestrels and the muriquis, and finally, how we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction largely initiated by human influence.

What I really liked about the conservation efforts regarding the kestrels and the muriquis was that Quammen compared and contrasted active human involvement (kestrels) with passive, observatory human involvement (marquis) and the ensuing success in re-establishing viable populations. Quammen details a descriptive narrative of how the scientist’s involved in the campaign to revitalize the Mauritius Kestrel population went to great lengths to save this dwindling species. These scientists scaled mountains in order to “swipe” the kestrel clutches in order to propel the mother kestrel to produce more eggs to compensate for the missing ones.  These extravagant efforts to save a dwindling species are contrasted with the case of  the South American muriquis. The scientist involved in this effort holds the notion that humans should merely observe and facilitate the breeding and prosperity of these primates instead of becoming actively involved.

I was surprised by how much I really liked this book. It broke up the definitions, equations, and statistics with a humorous narrative and personal anecdotes. Quammen writes in such a way that you feel like you are learning about the development of these theories and acquiring the evidence along with him. The book ends with tones of both desperation and optimism, and the urgency of a call to action to salvage what little of our natural environment that we have left.



Exclamation points

Honestly, the more I read this book, the more I want to be an ecologist.  I came into the major not really knowing what job opportunities I would be able to pursue, but this book is certainly giving me some good ideas.

I’m also considering taking more English classes so I can more effectively “fight out [my] battles in the journal literature.” I’m not terrible at writing, but being able to compare my speech to others here at Lehigh has shown me that I really could use some improving.  I thought it was funny how the scientists went back and forth in journals debating each other about the details of nature-reserve design (i.e., the SLOSS debate). Quammen pointed out that they even used exclamation points, which are apparently uncommon in scientific journals. Clearly the experiment itself is important, but I’m learning that it is equally important to effectively communicate your results and present your data in a clear and compelling fashion.



Biogeography and a burning boat

Is it a bad sign when the first word of a reading assignment, “biogeography,” is a word I have never seen before? Luckily, Quammen defines all the words he uses, and a second look at the spelling breaks the word down into two parts that are very familiar from high school (bio plus geography).

An illustration from Wallace’s “The Malay Archipelago” showing the species of flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus) that Wallace discovered.

David Quammen’s personal style made the story of Alfred Wallace really engrossing. I was especially interested because it brought to life some of the more dry reading I have been doing for my museum studies class, particularly with respect to the changing usage of museums. Before Wallace left on his trip to Bali and other islands, he “boned up particularly on Malayan insects and reptiles at the British Museum” (p.29). At the time of Wallace, museums were primarily there for scientists to learn and study.  It was not easy or practical for people to travel the earth to see specimens first hand. In fact, some biologists published works detailing the flora and fauna of continents they had never set foot upon, solely from visiting the museums of the day. Later in the chapter, Wallace was described as sending back many specimens for sale to collectors. In fact many of the collectors would, upon their deaths, donate their collections to the government and a new museum would be founded, or an existing museum expanded. In the high tech world we live in today, you think that it would be difficult to put yourself in Alfred Wallace’s shoes. However, Quammen brings the period to life.

As I was drawn into the story, I really felt for Alfred and his trip through the Amazon. At the end of his time there when he was returning to England I felt terrible for his loss. All that work lost when his boat sank. The poor caged animals – including his tame toucan – all perished. The loss seemed insurmountable. However, if the Helen hadn’t caught fire, and all of his work lost, would Wallace have ever gone to the Malay Archipelago? Or would he simply have gone home and sifted through all of his collections and notes for the rest of his life? He pressed on despite the loss, went to the Malay  Archipelago and combined the patterns he saw on the islands with the patterns he saw in the Amazon with its natural boundaries –  putting it all together to develop the greatest series of ideas in biology. What Darwin much more elegantly coined “natural selection.”



Birds of paradise

The end of The Song of the Dodo was approached very well. Quammen still introduced a number of terms and theories, but it wasn’t an overbearing amount of knowledge saved up for the end. His discussion of Population Viability Analysis and extinction vortices was a helpful depiction of the concepts and a good elaboration of the topics as discussed in lecture. He also provided good examples of the concept of insularization when applied to habitat fragmentation, almost as a summary of the book. I appreciated that he ended on an optimistic note by traveling to Aru and finding that the bird of paradise still exists, despite the level of ecological destruction in the rest of the world. This course was definitely one of the most enjoyable and informative classes of my entire freshman year. I liked the way the material was presented between lectures and the book; they complemented each other well, yet neither required the other and so both were effective on their own.


The Greater Bird-of-paradise. (Photo: wikipedia, Andrea Lawardi)

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