Darwin's Dreampond: Drama in Lake Victoria

Tijs Goldschmidt

translated from the Dutch by Sherry Marx-MacDonald
The MIT Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998 http://dannyreviews.com/
In 1981 Tijs Goldschmidt began a study of the cichlid fish ("furu") of Lake Victoria. Having diverged from a single species in what appears to have been only the last 12500 years, these fish constitute a "species flock" with more than two hundred members. They display a diverse array of feeding adaptations: among them there are fish-eaters, insect-eaters, prawn-eaters, algae-scrapers, mud-biters, leaf-choppers, snail-crushers, snail-shellers, scale-scrapers, and pedophages. In Darwin's Dreampond Goldschmidt shows off the Lake Victoria furu as a biological case study, using it as a springboard for explaining basic taxonomy and systematics and concepts in evolutionary biology such as speciation (allopatric and sympatric), adaptive radiation, and natural selection. The final chapters describe the effects on the lake ecosystem of the introduction of the Nile Perch — notably the extinction of most of the furu species.

All this comes coated for easy digestion: Goldschmidt is a storyteller as well as a scientist, and anecdotes from his personal experiences in Tanzania are used to frame — and explain — the biology. An attack of malaria leads, naturally enough, to an explanation of sickle-cell heterozygosity — and a debate with a doctor about natural selection. An account of a local wedding leads into a description of the marriage customs of the Sukuma, and thence into a discussion of sexual selection. A visit to a missionary lepidopterist and the inspection of his butterfly collection lead into an explanation of Batesian and Müllerian mimicry. And the local economics of the study area are connected to an explanation of furu ecological niches.

Darwin's Dreampond is never dull or dry. It provides an entertaining account of the evolutionary and ecological marvels of the Lake Victoria cichlids, along with extensive references to the scientific literature for those who want more detail. It is also an excellent introduction to the basic concepts of evolutionary biology, and one especially suitable for those more accustomed to travel writing.

July 1998

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%T Darwin's Dreampond
%S Drama in Lake Victoria
%A Goldschmidt, Tijs
%M Dutch
%F Marx-MacDonald, Sherry
%I The MIT Press
%D 1996 [1994]
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0262571218
%P 274pp