The Island of the Colour-blind: Medical mysteries and other stories

Book review: The Island of the Colour-blind by Oliver Sacks

I’ve always found Oliver Sacks’ books fascinating. Sacks was a neurologist, but in this book he gives us a glimpse of his childhood interests. In his early years he was fascinated by the natural world. He had a particular interest in cycad trees and islands, and he explores these passions in this book. And so the reader is not only entertained, but also learns a good deal about many aspects of Science without really trying.

The book is a collection of reminiscences from Sacks’ travels in the Pacific islands. But it’s interwoven with scientific anecdotes that bring many topics in Biology, Geology and Anthropology to life. And there’s a medical mystery or two.

The people of the title, who make up a tenth of the population of the island of Pingelap, cannot see colour at all. Their eyes have no cones, and so we learn a bit about how colour vision works, the genetics of it, and in evolutionary terms how this extremely rare condition became common because of a population bottleneck when only 20 islanders survived a catastrophic event.

The Island of the Colour-blind

Other examples are given to illustrate aspects of evolution, including the rapid changes to finches and cichlid fish when challenged by changes in their habitat.

Another fascinating example of evolution AND symbiosis, thrown in for good measure, is the golden jellyfish in Palau. Due to the lack of prey in the lake where their ancestors were trapped, their stingers have all but disappeared. The jellyfish survive on the food made by the photosynthesising algae that live in them.

On the island of Guam, Sacks meets many local wildlife experts and a doctor who is trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious neurological illness. And we learn a lot about cycads, one of the prime suspects.

There’s plenty to entertain and educate in these stories. I think the anecdotes and explanations are a great resource to help flesh out any student’s understanding of the various topics in the book.  If you’re studying Science or just like a good nature story, you will get a lot out of The Island of the Colour-blind.

 

In case you’re interested…

Shortly before his death, Oliver Sacks wrote this reflection on the periodic table.