In the annals of science there are many instances of pure, unleavened bad luck thwarting a researcher's best efforts. But there may be no more heartrending occurrence than that which befell naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, in August of 1852, aboard the ship Helen. For four years Wallace had slogged through the mud, swollen rivers and mosquitoes of the Amazon basin, assembling a huge collection of exotic fauna. Then, in the middle of the Atlantic on his return voyage, the ship's other cargo of balsam resin spontaneously combusted. Wallace escaped to a lifeboat, and watched every pickled bird and dried butterfly go up in flames. He whiled away his time sketching dolphins and seabirds before being rescued. And, as David Quammen notes in "The Song of the Dodo," something important came of this tragedy: the wreck of the Helen forced Wallace back out into the field to the Malay archipelago where, simultaneously with Darwin, he developed the theory of evolution.
Don't let Quammen's subtitle -- "Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions" -- scare you off. Yes, this is a big book, over 700 pages, and it deals with big science. But it's filled with stories of inquisitive humans like Wallace who, almost by chance, have drawn a complex picture of where species come from, and some frightening speculation about they are headed.
Quammen's book, put most simply, is a study of the distribution of life on islands. Because, as Quammen notes, "Isolation plus time yields divergence," islands by their geographical isolation have served to "give clarity to evolution." Nineteenth century naturalists like Wallace and Darwin were drawn to islands not only because of the giant tortoises, lizards and flightless birds that lived there, but because all that gigantism seemed to offer clues to the mystery of evolution in large, easy-to-read letters.
Quammen has spent the last 10 years following modern island biogeographers around the globe, and he makes their work accessible to the lay reader. Most important, though, is his contention that we have, in effect, developed the modern world into a series of biological islands, and have inevitably upped the threat of extinction by doing so. "The Song of the Dodo" could easily have been a hundred pages shorter, but Quammen's easygoing style, which readers may be familiar with from his columns in Outside magazine, makes the effort worthwhile. This book is a complicated and charming scientific history: a rare species indeed.