In the vein of John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, this is a lyrical narrative describing a new theory of how species dispersal occurred through ocean crossings. Throughout the Southern Hemisphere, closely related species are found on landmasses separated by wide stretches of ocean. What explains these far-flung distributions? More generally, why are species found where they are across the Earth? Ever since the discovery of plate tectonics in the sixties, the prevailing view in science has held that organisms got where they were by riding pieces of ancient super continents as they broke up. In the past decade, however, that story has foundered, as the genomic revolution has made reams of new genetic data available. And the data has revealed an extraordinary, stranger-than-fiction story that has sparked a scientific revolution.
In The Monkey's Voyage, biologist Alan de Queiroz describes how pregnant animals and wind-blown plants rode rafts and icebergs and even stowed away on the legs of sea-going birds to create the map of life we see today. In other words, these organisms were not merely victims of continental fate; new evidence reveals that species as diverse as monkeys, baobab trees, and burrowing lizards made these incredible long-distance ocean crossings. By toppling the idea that the slow process of continental drift drove odd distributions of organisms, this new theory highlights the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the history of life and has profound implications for our view of evolutionary history.
De Queiroz shows how wide-reaching the effects of oceanic dispersal have been in generating the diversity of life on Earth, from monkeys and guinea pigs in South America to beech trees and kiwi birds in New Zealand. In the tradition of John McPhee's Basin and Range and David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo, The Monkey's Voyage is a beautifully told narrative of a profound investigation into the importance of contingency in history and the nature of scientific discovery.
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Alan de Queiroz is an evolutionary biologist and adjunct faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has written widely-cited research articles on topics ranging from biogeography to the evolution of behavior to the origins of parasites. He lives in Reno, Nevada.