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29 January 2014

Book Review | The Monkey's Voyage by Alan de Queiroz

The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life by Alan de Queiroz | January 2014 | Basic Books | Hardcover $27.99

★ ★ ★ ★

I found The Monkey's Voyage surprisingly amusing; the narrative "feel" of it makes it appropriate for casual reading as well as academic. It reads as though one is having a nice discussion with someone who is clearly well-versed in his subject but who can't hide his amicable humor -- or, in some instances, his sharp snark. I don't know the author personally, obviously, but this book makes a nice contrast to those cases (all-too-common in science writing) where the author seems to be impatiently talking down to or obliviously over the head of the reader, or where the story could be quite interesting if only the voice that was telling it wasn't so dry and robotic.

Alan de Queiroz's first full book serves as a kind of primer on biogeography, the study of the distribution of species across our planet (or the "analysis of the spatial distributions of organisms" if you want to get fancy). Well, perhaps it isn't so much a primer -- though the author does patiently explain some of the basic concepts of the field -- as a sort of history of the development of biogeography as a science, like a narrative tour of sorts. I don't have the patience to offer a full summary and detailed critique, but if you find yourself intrigued and want to get more in-depth analysis I recommend this article by Nick Matzke at Panda's Thumb, including the wonderful discussion in the comments.

My impression is that The Monkey's Voyage is written for a semi-scientific audience, by which I mean one should definitely already be familiar with the basics of ecology and evolutionary biology but needn't be a professional in the field. Certain unavoidable terms (vicariance, dispersal, taxon, cladistics, etc.) are briefly and nicely explained, but a quick familiarity is definitely expected of the reader. Maps and charts and things aid understanding, if you can decipher them. Bits of snark make for an amusing, if not entirely neutral, read (though the author never claims neutral ground). My favorite example of this can be found on pages 89-90, in an examination of Gary Nelson and Norm Platnick's particularly enthusiastic insistence on a certain point of view: "It's a grand vision for humanity, placing us within the great story of the fragmentation of the world's biotas through continental drift. It's an epitome of the Croizatian vision that 'Earth and life evolve together.' It's . . . [page turn] . . . also completely looney."

I'd recommend this for those who are curious about biogeography (obviously) as well as those who might like a somewhat idiosyncratic glimpse of some of the less-than-gentlemanly "feuds" that can erupt between scientists when their major hypotheses are at odds.

Other worthwhile reviews of this book:

At Panda's Thumb, by Nick Matzke

At the New York Times, by Jonathan Weiner

At the Wall Street Journal, by Richard Conniff

Incidentally, the author's wife keeps a lovely little blog called Tiny Natural World, which I've been aimlessly wandering around in for the past 30 minutes -- take a look if you're into that sort of thing.

Publication information:
de Queiroz, Alan. The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Print.

I received a free copy of this book from Basic Books via a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review.


I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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