Monday, February 20, 2006

Dead as a dodo

Slate Magazine gives us Finnish artist Harri Kallio's photographic resurrection of the dodo from extinction.

The dodo vanished 175 years before Lewis Carroll introduced his favorite bird to his favorite little girl in Alice in Wonderland.

Alice has fallen, along with a mouse, sundry birds, and several other "curious creatures" into a pool of her own tears. The Dodo proposes that all should dry themselves by holding a foot race, in which the contestants begin running whenever they wish and run until the Dodo decides the race should end. Everyone wins, everyone receives a prize, and everyone gets quite dry.

In John Tenniel's famous illustration, the bird is solemn and wise, a rather distinguished-looking gentleman, not at all the "dumb-dodo" of common parlance. After all, the Dodo of the story was meant to represent Carroll himself, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, and who sometimes stammered his name "Do-Do-Dodgson."

The biologist Bradley Livezy of the University of Kansas has wondered (Nature, Sept. 23, 1993) if the dodo's curious physique was a result of so-called paedomorphosis, in which development stops when a creature becomes sexually mature, although some parts of the body have not yet achieved developmental maturity. Thus we get, as one observer noted, a bird that resembles "a young duck or gosling enlarged to the dimensions of a swan." With his sweet/sad fixation on little girls, Lewis Carroll seems to have had his own problems achieving sexual maturity, which makes his choice of ornithological persona even more appropriate.