Thursday, September 27, 2018

Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

After finishing this book last night, I returned to the beginning:  “Let’s start indoors.  Let’s start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife.”  So David Quammen begin this story of how we have arrived from a time of a sprawling natural world of forest and field, whole and if not perfect then full of splendor, to a world today that is scattered, pieced, and degraded, though still yet stunning in places.  This book begins with the names of people that every educated citizen knows—Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace—as they began to unravel the mystery of mysteries: the diversity of life.  We followed the story of their trials and exploration into a world still rich in diversity but already unravelling so that whole portions are lost.  We can feel the sore and blistered feet, and the risk and inconvenience of getting to the far reaches of the world 160+ years earlier to see what has rarely been seen outside of a small populace of human inhabitants. 

This has been a long telling of the story of the sixth extinction.  Could Quammen have simply said: Alas, when the world is cut up into pieces, extinction is the inevitable consequence for many species, especially those that are rare and vulnerable in the first place?  Perhaps.  However, what a journey he has taken us on and how compelling he made the argument about vulnerability.  That “we have entered the era of metapopulations” as the fine Persian carpet has been sliced into fractions, again and again from the Concho water snake, the indri, the muriqui, the original Tasmanians, the thylacine…the list goes on. And, Quammen loves his lists, of course.  While the whole world has become a series of isolated patches, in not-quite-islands, so many species are ill equipped to survive this isolation after evolving for millennia unabridged.  So many are doomed, we are told, because these small isolated populations have lost the genetic diversity that would permit them to evolve.  Speciation halted.

Quammen takes us to a curious place in the end, back to Aru—one of the far-reaching destinations of Wallace’s where he saw the greater bird of paradise, a bird most of us only know in a tacky country song.  Quammen leaves us there in Aru with a species that still exists, miraculously, with him staring up at them in a tree calling out with a “chorus of squawking”—a song, that unlike the dodo, we can know.  Perhaps this is meant to be a hopeful ending, but I’m not feeling like a hopeful person today: It feels like a last glimpse at what will soon disappear, although we can watch it on YouTube and will not have to guess at least at what it sounded like or looked like.  As the book ends, it feels like an ending we have not yet reached, but it is an ending that we can guess.  Quammen has laid out the writing on the wall, like a shaman with a compelling vocabulary.  The story of extinction will not be a happy conclusion: How can it be? 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Song of the Dodo: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

One of the lasting questions that Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction left me with was this: Was the evolutionary tree marked to be significantly pruned with the evolution of the large brained (shortsighted) human primates some 200,000 years ago?  As I read Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo that is the subject I most ponder.  Humans traveling the world in energy efficient wind-powered boats were doing what they could to ensure they would survive by inserting themselves into the food webs of the places they traveled.  Food must have dominated their thoughts, traveling across the world with limited provisions, with the prospect of potentially getting stranded out at sea by lack of wind or some other calamity.  Many of these food webs lacked large mammalian predators, so were painfully vulnerable to the odd sailor with a club and a growling stomach.  Their actions were largely out of ignorance of biogeography and endemism of island species.  And who could blame a hungry person for feeding her or himself? Certainly, they had no idea of the evolutionary tree or that they were in fact changing evolutionary history by their actions. 

As news was reported of the extinction of the northern white rhino this spring, I could feel it in my gut, despite realizing these slow-reproducing, large mammals with small populations were likely doomed in a world with humans, just as the mammoths and mastodons may have been when human population was small, but effective.  Just as the species of so many of the islands containing rare endemics are ill fated in a world of humans.  Death and destruction—“Rarity unto Death” as Quammen puts it.  Moreover, we know that the coming months and years will bring similar stories with many species facing the low population sizes and low genetic diversity, which precede extinction.

The 21st century is a test of the human brain’s aptitude to show some foresight.  Five-hundred years ago, (or even 100-150 years ago, really), we didn’t have the knowledge base to fully understand patterns of diversity and extinction, and the extent of the role we were playing or could play.  The knowledge base has changed, but will our actions?  Given the actions we’ve seen so many of our politicians take in the presence of abundant data, I wouldn’t bet on it; they so often *choose* ignorance (and they are not alone, since they are serving as the will of the voters).  How can any species willingly choose ignorance?  We have more data than we’ve ever had—enough information to know at least generally what actions to take. But what will we do?  Is it the nature of humans, like other animals, to serve only the needs of the here and now, or do we have a greater capacity? 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Song of the Dodo: Wallace (and Darwin) and Puzzles

I remember a scientist saying that many of the amphibians around the world are going to go extinct and that it would be better to stop extreme conservation efforts and, rather, study these species so that we will know what we have lost.  What we are losing.  I think this scientist was speaking from a dark place in the face of unprecedented declines.  In other words, he wasn’t in his happy place.  For those of us who love the natural world, it is sometimes hard to find *that* place where we can be filled enough with curiosity and wonder to prevent our knowledge of biodiversity loss trespass into the moment.  

I just started reading The Song of the Dodo (1996) by David Quammen with some other folks in the department—I predict we are going to a dark place eventually, but we are not there yet.  What has struck me most is the journey of Alfred Russel Wallace into the Amazon then onto the Malayan Archipelago.  Or maybe it is simply Wallace who strikes my fancy.  In modern times he would be a first-generation college student.  He does not profit from family wealth or connections, but rather from sheer skill, determination, and tenacity—and a little luck, both bad and good.  It was enough.  As he struggled to figure out how to explain the relationships between species on islands and the mainland, he reached out to his more privileged mentors who sometimes helped him, but who also may have taken advantage of his professional naïveté.  By all rights, Wallace could have scooped Darwin and had he been a little more competitive, perhaps Darwin would be the parenthetical scientist.   Wallace clearly had a more focused vision of what he was looking for when he headed out to study islands than Darwin had when he was collecting his mockingbirds and finches willy-nilly, it turns out, in the Galapagos, failing even to label the islands his specimens came from.  (Given that Captain Fitz-Roy and Darwin’s manservant had labeled *their* collections, one does wonder how young Darwin could have been so lackadaisical. Those of us who have made mistakes in science, however, should sympathize and forgive—I suspect we have all kicked ourselves more than once…and the heat of the field season can cause a poor decision or two.)

Wallace’s (and Darwin’s) world was already missing pieces of the biological puzzle, although they had not fully grasped that extinction was a grim reality as they bagged animal after animal to sell and to study.  They were already part of the beginning of the sixth extinction even if their world was much less trampled then. Even if we could travel back in time to whisper in Wallace’s ear of what is to come—to offer warnings of caution and restraint—should we?  If biodiversity was doomed with the evolution of humans, as Elizabeth Kolbert suggests in The Sixth Extinction and as a good look around would bolster, then perhaps my gloomy colleague was right: best to study these species now to know what we have lost.  In which case, we forgo the challenge of time travel, except for what we find in these pages of history and in the natural history museums that proffer a glimpse back into a world we will never put quite back together.  A glimpse offered by the likes of Wallace and others who better recorded what was found, and seen, and heard, than any who glimpsed a dodo.       

Enjoying the magic of David Quammen’s writing and wondering to what point of despair we are now headed as we read into “The Rarity Unto Death.”