The Garden of Eden revisited: David Quammen’s quest to save the world

A book that every girl, boy, student, woman and man in every country throughout the world should read. They won’t, of course.

The book is The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen. It is inspired and its inspiration comes from a particular passage in Alfred Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869), now more than one hundred years old. Wallace, who together with Charles Darwin conceived of natural selection, had visited the remote Aru Islands of eastern Indonesia.

Cicinnurus regiusRecording his “transports of admiration and delight” at laying hands on a specimen of the scarlet species of bird of paradise with green spiral tail wires (known to science as Cicinnurus regius), Wallace perceptively – and prophetically – wrote:

“It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in those wild, inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach those distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of those virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man.”

The Song of the Dodo plunges the reader into “island biogeography”, the study of diverse isolated ecosystems big and small. Its arguments are unravelled in the language of ordinary perceptions and presented with outstanding clarity. To help, Quammen time-travels to recall historical events and characters, interweaving quotations and data that elucidate. Concepts are scientific, so complexities broken down into bite-sized chunks, but the writing is never condescending. And it is often humorous.

Quammen is a journalist and travel writer, who has a sharp eye for natural landscape and a keen awareness of human foibles. The reader gets to see, to hear, and sometimes to smell his surroundings. But what makes the book outstanding is its articulation of the whys and wherefores of the impact human beings are having on the world’s ecosystems. It deals, therefore, with survival and extinction: our survival or extinction. It is not so much a journey into the past, but into the future, and it delves deeply into our moral responsibility for the world in which we live.

The style of The Song of the Dodo invites comparison with the likes of Bruce Chatwin, William Dalrymple, and Jan Morris, but stuffed with scientific acumen, passion, and love for the only world we know (or think we know).

In the words of Milton’s poem, when Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise:

“The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”

SongIt was a path they had to make for themselves. The flora and fauna of the Garden of Eden were now in their charge, since they had already “attained the sum of wisdom”, and the only question facing them was what they would do with that knowledge: preserve or destroy?

In many places of the world, time has already run out. But not in the Aru Islands – at least in 1996 when The Song of the Dodo was published:

“The sad, dire things that have happened elsewhere, in so many parts of the world – biological imperialism, massive habitat destruction, fragmentation, inbreeding depression, loss of adaptability, decline of wild populations to unviable population levels, ecosystem decay, trophic cascades, extinction, extinction, extinction – haven’t yet happened here. Probably they soon will. Meanwhile, though, there’s still time. If time is hope, there’s still hope.”

But for how long? The Song of the Dodo is a lesson in humanity and commonsense that we fail to learn at our ultimate peril.

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