Here’s a question you may never have pondered before: Why aren’t there any wild monkeys in the United States? There are monkeys aplenty in Central and South America. So why no hordes of New World chimpanzees chasing buffalo herds across the fruited plain? Why no infestations of scrappy spider monkeys duking it out with the rats behind every dumpster in New York City? And where are the shy gorillas lurking like Bigfoot within the Olympic National Forest?
Biologist Alan de Queiroz’s new book, “The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life,” raises exactly this question — and once it occurs to the reader, it becomes impossible to let go. The book’s cover features a winsome monkey sporting a goatee, its little fist half-raised in something like defiance. Why isn’t one of these adorable specimens peering into your window right now, clutching seeds in its fist from your birdfeeder?
In “The Monkey’s Voyage,” de Queiroz’s takes the reader into the thick of an ongoing, century-long academic debate surrounding biogeography, the study of the distribution of plants and animals over large distances and even larger time spans. That may sound somewhat less thrilling than the preceding question about our lack of monkeys — and it is. Though to be fair, once you open the covers of his book, de Queiroz is upfront about its purpose.
“The goal of this book is to tell the story of this recent sea change in biogeography, from a view dominated by vicariance to a more balanced outlook recognizing that the natural dispersal of organisms across oceans and other barriers is also hugely important,” de Queiroz writes, right there on page 15. But after the evocative title, the charming monkey on the cover and a riveting anecdote about the author’s struggle to capture a large snake in Baja California, it is hard to believe that this is really what the book is about.
For readers inclined to judge a book by its cover, de Queiroz offers the most pointed of object lessons. “The Monkey’s Voyage” is not about monkeys. Instead, it is about exactly what he promised on page 15: The evolution of scientific theories explaining how animals wound up where they currently are, as described first by Charles Darwin (you know who he is), then by Léon Croizat in the early 20th century (you don’t know who he is, but his photo in this book could be captioned “Father Time scowls at a small cactus”) and finally by modern day Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis (you also don’t know who he is, but it’s worth noting that he enjoys LSD and aiming laser pointers at crowds “to see how they’d react”).
In a nutshell, the competing theories of biogeography boil down to animals and plants being where they are today either because they were spread out across the great single primordial continent when it split up, because they crossed ancient land bridges,or because they traveled across vast stretches of ocean by flying, swimming or hitching rides on floating plants.
As a comprehensive account of how science itself evolves, “The Monkey’s Journey” offers unique insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of academia, field studies and research methodology. Rather than serve up a brief overview of earlier theories that explained why, for example, “crocodiles can be found in most warm parts of the world [or] how on earth could a giant flightless bird or a southern beech [tree], with seeds that cannot survive in seawater, cross a wide expanse of ocean,” de Queiroz introduces the reader to the major players of the biogeographic community from the 19th century to today, and he includes the sticky disputes that helped discredit many of them along with their theories.
By the time de Queiroz focuses his attention on the simian star of his book’s cover image and title, two-thirds of the text has elapsed. De Queiroz seems reluctant to express his personal theory about why we lack monkeys when Africa, Asia and South America are so overrun. From his outpost in the illustrious university town of Reno, Nev., de Queiroz hesitantly posits that monkeys got where they are by crossing oceans on naturally occurring rafts of tangled vegetation, then he drops the subject. He seems afraid of being branded a crank like the discredited biogeographers of yesteryear, which is surprising. It’s not as though he is claiming that monkeys built the rafts with little monkey tools, overseen by a monkey contractor who misappropriated funds from the monkey union. Rather than delve into his theory, de Queiroz merely presents it, then moves on to discuss such human-engineered distributions as potatoes.
But the question remains, at the close of 300 pages: Why aren’t there monkeys of Seattle, Mr. de Queiroz? And how can we get them to migrate to the Emerald City?