BOOKS: The Monkey’s Bridge & The Flight of the Iguana

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1998:

The Monkey’s Bridge:
Mysteries of Evolution in Central America
by David Rains Wallace
Sierra Club Books (895 2nd St., San Francisco, CA 94105), 1997.
$25.00, hardcover, 276 pages.

The Flight of the Iguana:
A Sidelong View of Science & Nature
by David Quammen
Touchstone Books (1230 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 1998.
302 pages, paperback, $13.00.

David Rains Wallace may not be the first nonfiction author to use the Latin American
literary techniques of “magic realism,” but he is the first I’ve read to do so, in a volume combining
natural history with travelogue, comparing and contrasting observations as a young hitchhiker
circa 1971 with more recent findings as a fulltime nature writer.
Unfortunately, Sierra Club Books didn’t issue The Monkey’s Bridge with the fold-out
full-color satellite-image map one desperately needs to fully understand the primary topic: the

ecological importance of Central America as
an emerging continent, the newest major land
mass on Earth and the most influential land
bridge of the past 50 million years in shaping
the global distribution of plants and animals.
The map, located elsewhere, completed
the story. Rising from beneath the
Caribbean is a shelf twice the size of
Madagascar. The parts already risen have
reoriented ocean currents, radically reshaped
climate, separated Pacific and Atlantic marine
species, prevented sea snakes from entering
the Atlantic, and set up an ongoing
north/south exchange of land animals.
For more than 250 pages, Wallace
devastates the hubris of those who would
attempt to freeze evolution by exterminating
so-called “non-native” species to “restore” the
pre-Columbian ecology. The Monkey’s Bridge
makes manifestly clear that the notion of a
steady-state ecology, human-managed or otherwise,
is not only fallacious but silly. Yet
Wallace writes for his living for the publication
arms of major conservation groups that
lead the push not only to prevent introductions
but to try to reverse those already accomplished,
and thus disappointingly concludes
with a warning against any human activity
which might contribute to intercontinental and
inter-oceanic species exchange.
Outside magazine feature writer
David Quammen also includes paens to bioxenophobia
in The Flight of the Iguana, a collection
of his favorite short works featuring,
among other things, ridicule of animal rights
philosophy and vegetarianism that sound a lot
like the stirrings of a guilty conscience––
because Quammen does think about individual
animal suffering, even on the part of unpopular
species that he himself isn’t fond of. His
most inspired writing, however, comes in a
series of essays about the flight of refugees
from Central American death squads during
the mid-1980s. Here Quammen’s sympathies
are unabashedly with the alleged alien
invaders, though his politics otherwise don’t
seem to lean left, and he even seems to draw
parallels between their desperation and that of
wildlife displaced by habitat loss.
Both Wallace and Quammen falter
in trying to reconcile personal insight with
environmental dogma, much as some of the
early evolutionary scientists they both describe
stumbled when they tried to reconcile the fossil
record literally with Biblical Creation.

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