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Dodos and Solitaires

This classic Marginalia on the dodo's disappearance was first published in 1954

G. Evelyn Hutchinson

Editors’ Note: The renowned ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson was the first scholar to pen Marginalia in American Scientist, beginning in 1942. This entry is from his last year as Marginalist, 1954. The controversy he describes has only been resolved within the past decade, and we are not about to spoil the punch line before the article. If, however, you visit the "other related links" box to the bottom right of the page—after reading the Yale professor’s analysis, please—you can find a selection of links to material about the inevitable reach of genetic analysis to solve the dilemma.

The progress of Man in civilization, no less than his numerical increase, continually extends the geographical domain of Art by trenching on the territories of Nature, and hence the Zoologist or Botanist of future ages will have a much narrower field for his researches than that which we enjoy at present. It is, therefore, the duty of the naturalist to preserve to the stores of Science the knowledge of these extinct or expiring organisms, when he is unable to preserve their lives; so that our acquaintance with the marvels of Animal and Vegetable existence may suffer no detriment by the losses which the organic creation seems destined to sustain.

Thus wrote Strickland in the introduction to his classical memoir [1] on the dodo, published in 1848. It is both extraordinary and tragic how little we still know about animals which have become far rarer than they were at the time Strickland wrote. No satisfactory treatment of L’éléphant et ses amours, let alone a stately ten-volume Grundriss der Elefantenlehre appear, in spite of the popular story, yet to exist. Of the rhinoceroses, of which perhaps not more than a few thousand specimens of the commonest species are now living, we know even less. The little that we do know is, however, abundantly worth knowing. Of the dodo we cannot now learn much that is new; what is ascertainable will be discussed in the following pages.

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