Song of the Dodo

Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

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David Quammen's book, The Song of the Dodo, is a brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope, far-reaching in its message -- a crucial book in precarious times, which radically alters the way in which we understand the natural world and our place in that world. It's also a book full of entertainment and wonders.
In The Song of the Dodo, we follow Quammen's keen intellect through the ideas, theories, and experiments of prominent naturalists of the last two centuries. We trail after him as he travels the world, tracking the subject of island biogeography, which encompasses nothing less than the study of the origin and extinction of all species. Why is this island idea so important? Because islands are where species most commonly go extinct -- and because, as Quammen points out, we live in an age when all of Earth's landscapes are being chopped into island-like fragments by human activity.
Through his eyes, we glimpse the nature of evolution and extinction, and in so doing come to understand the monumental diversity of our planet, and the importance of preserving its wild landscapes, animals, and plants. We also meet some fascinating human characters. By the book's end we are wiser, and more deeply concerned, but Quammen leaves us with a message of excitement and hope.
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Book Details:
  • Scribner | 
  • 704 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780684827124 | 
  • April 1997
List Price $24.99

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

THIRTY-SIX PERSIAN THROW RUGS

Let's start indoors. Let's start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor-sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, each one a rectangle, two feet by three. Never mind the hardwood floor. The severing fibers release small tweaky noises, like the muted yelps of outraged Persian weavers. Never mind the weavers. When we're finished cutting, we measure the individual pieces, total them up -- and find that, lo,... see more

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Discussion Points

  1. Discuss the ways in which Quammen's The Song of the Dodo is part adventure story, part scientific study, part travelogue, part murder mystery, part history book, and part biography.
  2. Comment on Quammen's writing style and his ability to impart difficult scientific material in both an interesting and understandable way.
  3. Why do you think Quammen chose to use as his title figure the dodo bird, a large-headed, big-butted, lumbering, flightless bird? What does the dodo bird represent in the book? Why in particular did he choose to mention the song of the dodo? What resonance does this have?
  4. Why do you think Quammen invests so much time dispelling the fictional stories of science, stories based more on convenience and tidiness than on the truth -- such as Darwin being portrayed as the sole mind behind the theory of evolution, when in fact there was another man named Wallace who came upon it on his own?
  5. The Tasmanian Aborigines were driven to the brink of extinction by the colonial settlers in the late 19th century. Compare their fate to the extinction of the dodo bird in the 1600s. Why is it so resonant? How is it haunting? What implications does it have for the human race?
  6. Why is Quammen's book so powerful? In what ways did it change your view of the natural world? Did it in any way alter your perspective on your own life and on life itself? If so, how?
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