Who’s the real dodo?

20 03 2007

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the image of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus, previously Didus ineptus) in popular culture. Ever dim-witted, ever deluded, the dodo is a symbol of ineptitude (hence the old species name) and aberrant characteristics that make it unfit to survive. The film Ice Age shows a group of North American dodos (someone didn’t do their natural history homework) hoarding watermelons in a cultish manner, their own ineptitude leading to their demise. Likewise, the recent documentary Flock of Dodos featured a cavalcade of dim-witted orange birds to drive the films message home. Indeed, if you call someone a dodo they will not likely take it as a compliment, but this belies one of the greatest misunderstandings in the history of natural science.

I must say that my inspiration for this post draws directly from Gould’s essay “The Dodo in the Caucus Race” from the collection Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, and I fully realize that attempting to come close to the essay would be impossible (and plagiarism). The pertinent facts expressed in the essay, however, are that the dodo was maligned even when it was still living on Mauritius, it’s extinction being caused by predation by man and (to a greater extent) rats and pigs introduced to the island. The dodo did not die off because of any deficiency, but like so many other animals was wiped out by man’s carelessness and contempt, its extinction being it’s own fault. It is almost as if the dodo committed some sort of species suicide, implying the old notion that species have some sort of aging process similar to individuals where at some point there are merely too enfeebled to go on. In fact, what hubris might even dictate that we performed a mercy on behalf of the dodo, ridding the island of a species too old and ill-fitted to survive. Of course, this is all utter nonsense, but the dodo as icon still hearkens back such long-refuted beliefs.

I would like to think that attitudes have changed since the time the dodo went extinct (mid-late 17th century), but many people seem to maintain a skewed view of ecology, evolution, and extinction. For many, evolution is (wrongly) boiled down to “survival of the fittest,” and hence a tautology of “what is fit survives and what survives must be fit.” The dodo obviously failed the test and was a bumbling, idiotic bird, obviously unfit. In trying to think of such an animal today, I can only come up with the sloth as a candidate. This is not to say that most people fully understand sloths or their behavior, but their name is that of one of the 7 deadly sins, and hence they must be utterly detestable and ill-fitted if they are to represent such a moniker. As global climate change and human encroachment further damage various ecosystems, however, I feel the subjective judgment of species may become more prevalent, those who wish to rape and pillage pointing out that if a particular animal were truly fit for survival, it wouldn’t be endangered in the first place. Following this logic will lead to a world inhabited by constantly ill populations of white-tailed deer, superpigeons (see David Quammen’s essay on the modern city pigeon in Wild Thoughts from Wild Places), squirrels, and mosquitoes.

Many people (especially Christians) have asked me “Why is evolution so important?” On the surface it seems like just another science, inaccessible to all but the properly trained, but this is not the case. While some personal study may be needed to understand a cladogram or adaptive landscape, the basic concepts of evolution lie within the mental grasp of anyone who should listen (and everyone should listen). Understanding the diversity and unity of life on this planet inherently creates a moral imperative to attempt to understand what has been lost and conserve what remains, and if for no other reason understanding evolution is important as it does not allow us to simply twiddle our thumbs and do nothing as the planet suffers under the strain of our habitation. As for the dodo, I hope that someday its public image will get a facelift so that is no longer is relegated to constantly wear the evolutionary dunce-cap, such a change signaling that perhaps understanding will have finally begun to sink in.


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