Indiana University Press offers an eclectic selection of books for the natural history enthusiast ranging from the mildly quirky to the aggressively esoteric. Parish’s The Dodo and the Solitaire: A Natural History lands unabashedly in the latter category. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Between its beautifully illustrated covers are contained 3 pounds of literature detailing virtually every known reference, illustration and noteworthy scientific study concerning the extinct Dodo of Mauritius and Solitaire of Rodrigues. The Dodo has long captured the imagination of the public, despite a dispiriting paucity of scientific source material. The tragic destruction of this species, so rapid that many doubted in subsequent decades that it had existed at all, has become an iconic illustration of human-driven extinction. Simultaneously, its amusingly improbable appearance: squat, rotund and beady-eyed has rendered its name synonymous with idiocy.
The book opens with a compendium of the primary source documents detailing eyewitness accounts and first encounters with these two birds. From there Parish moves to an analysis of artistic depictions, which is by far the most compelling and wonderfully interdisciplinary chapter of the book. The focus then shifts to a description of secondary sources and “miscellanea” before moving on in the final two chapters to an exhaustive survey of the known anatomy and ecology of the Dodo and Solitaire. This work clearly was written with the intention of becoming the single authoritative source of information in this field. As evidenced by the myriad cross-references throughout the text, there are only a handful of authoritative sources that have nevertheless inspired a tremendous amount of scholarship over the past four centuries. Acknowledging the academic accomplishment of this book, it is still a melancholy fact that virtually everything known of these two birds truly can be fit into a single volume.
Parish’s analysis of historic documents is often difficult to follow. While his acute attention to detail is a reflection of the breadth and depth of knowledge contained in the book, it sometimes comes at the expense of coherence, obscuring the thematic organization of any individual section. Due diligence is given every theory on every possible subject, but without a consistent clarification of the contemporary consensus. The result is that the reader may have difficulty understanding the historic arc of a scientific debate. For example, the reader must venture 140 pages into the text to discover that many documents mistakenly invoke the name of the Reunion Solitaire to refer to an extinct species of ibis. After reading over a hundred pages of scholarship to the contrary, this fact was revelatory, and mildly confusing and irritating. Those new to the subject might try reading the final chapter “A Natural History of the Dodo and the Solitaire” first. It provides a clear summary of the historic and anatomical evidences and would work well as a stand-alone introduction to the topic.
The chapter “Contemporary Illustrations” is where Parish truly shines as a scholar. His affection for both anatomy and art is apparent in his careful dissection of all the extant depictions of these elusive birds. Historically, in the absence of quality anatomical specimens, many artists simply copied their own work or that of their predecessors. Similarly, since there are only a handful of useful anatomical specimens available to scientists, detailed analysis of artwork has become an important source of information to “Dodologists”. Although it is easy to get bogged down in textual details such as the distinctions between the Savery-Crocker piece, the Savery-BM, the Savery-Vienna, etc. the accompanying images in this chapter simplify these incestuous relationships and clarify how each piece has influenced and inspired academic research and scholarship. In one particularly effective example, Parish arranges a diagram featuring simple line-drawing reproductions of Dodos illustrations. Each specimen is labeled and positioned in a sort of tree. Lines are drawn between the Dodos to show the “evolutionary” relationships among different works of art. It’s a simple and lovely blending of art and science.
Like any good fable, the story of the Dodo has been told and retold until it has become difficult for even the most knowledgeable scholars to distinguish fact from fiction. Parish painstakingly works to unravel the scientific debates surrounding these iconic birds with varying success. Most of his analyses stop short of a seeking definitive explanation. The reader of this book may be excused for occasionally feeling enervated by this consistent lack of resolution. However, Parish is intentionally cautious not to draw firm conclusions on the many debates regarding the biology, physiology and history of the Dodo. He prefers to restrict himself to countering arguments and debunking myths, often without offering a succinct alternative. While a source of frustration to a reader accustomed to digesting information in an “introduction-supporting data-conclusion” format, this will ultimately prove one of the books greatest strengths. By refusing to wade into the debates, Parish has crafted a book that will firmly resist obsolescence.
The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.