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Swan song


Published: Monday 31 May 1999

-- When keats wrote 'a thing of beauty is a joy forever', he never knew that memory would, one day, be the only leitmotif of species that roamed and forests which covered the Earth. Extinction has never been an 'in your face' experience and books for the lay person have never touched on such topics. Some books such as Silent Spring have used the decline of birds as a pointer of what chemicals can do to humans, but no book has been able to get the attention of the common people to the fact that soon Homo sapiens may be the only species alive.

The process of evolution and extinction are closely related, not in a philosophical sense, but in a very logical way. Evolution is a process of specialisation and adaptation. Extinction, on the other hand, is based on the failure of its specialisation.

One can study evolution to understand the process of extinction and vice versa. Using this as a base, in his book The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen has discussed the process of evolution and the cause of extinction.

The author attempts to explain many things in this book: evolution and thus extinction; the factors that brought about the change; the people who put forth their evolutionary theories; and stories and legends on scientists and evolutionary theories.

Evolution can be understood by downsizing the Earth into individual islands. The author gives reasons why this is so. He points out that islands are self-contained pockets of life. Nothing is affected in the island because of its isolation. Species have to adapt to what is present.

The natural process consists of both, extinction and evolution, but over large time frames. The human species with its ecological backpack has been ble to catalyse only one part of this natural process -- extinction.

The author begins with the dodo and the Portuguese (or was it Dutch? Quammen asks), and how the latter decimated this ugly, tasteless and flightless bird, not only by killing them but also supplanting the island with pigs and goats. These animals not only competed for food, they went further and ate dodo eggs. It is not only the presence of humans as species that began the long line of extinction, but it was their ability to bridge natural barriers and bring along alien or exotic species that lead to the decimation of endemic species. But that is the story of an island. On the mainland, it was the increasing human population that led to the extinction of many species.

The book has a chatty flavour that breaks down snooty science into everyday language. Quammen has given a literary flavour to the science of evolution that makes the book eminently readable.

Would photographs have helped? Yes, no and may be. Yes, because when the author speaks of animals such as the thylacines, a carnivorous marsupial endemic to Tasmania, which is now extinct or of the cassowary, a ground bird still found in the rain forests of a few Asian islands or for that matter the birds of paradise one cannot create a picture which would satiate ones curiosity.

No, because this is not a coffee table about extinct species but about what were the reasons for extinctions. Photographs would have diverted a person attention from a logical thought process that culminates in understanding, if partly, on the dynamics of extinction to its oversimplification.

Maybe, because, scientific inquiry, which this book is about can be enhanced through pictures especially for a lay person.

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