The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen

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The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen, Scribner, 1996, ISBN 0-684-80083-7, $32.00, 702pp.

I read the chapters pertaining to the Galapagos from this excellent new book by Outside magazine writing star, David Quammen. The full book is about island biogeography, the new method of looking at total ecosystems (island in this case does not necessarily mean a body of land surrounded by water), of which the Galapagos is only one of the more representative cases. The first three chapters–“Thirty-Six Persian Throw Rugs,” “The Man Who Knew Islands,” and “So Huge a Bignes”–center on Quammen’s hero, the little known co-discoverer of natural┬áselection as a means of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace. For a book that is about science, Quammen certainly knows how to write about history, and the story of Wallace is well worth the price of this book. In short, Wallace was a self-educated naturalist, who relied on selling the majority of the specimens he collected to wealthy naturalists (like Charles Darwin). However, because he had to collect so much more, he was able to discover the difference between species variation and simple individual differences firsthand. He identified the selection principles enacted by geography during his collecting in Indonesia, and that gave rise to the paper that earned him co-discovery of “natural selection.”

As Jill says, Quammen is such a good writer that he makes even the heavy slogging through some of the highly technical bit interesting. His Outside magazine style combined with meticulous research and logic building that rivals Stephen Jay Gould would make this the best book on its subject, except for the fact that it is currently the only one (Jill corrects me–it is the only one on its subject written for the lay reader).

[Finished March 1997]

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