David Quammen’s new book Spillover, on emergent diseases; or more specifically, on emergent zoonoses, came out a few months ago to a series of middling good but somehow lukewarm reviews. I vehemently disagree, but it takes a bit of unfolding. Why do some readers find such a book fascinating while others find it dull?
First: I think any literate biologist will find it fascinating, a journalistic War and Peace with many adventurous protagonists, viruses as antagonists, mysterious hosts (you will learn why so many turn out to be bats, and why the source of the legendary Ebola— which should scare you a lot less than bird flu– probably is).
But you must understand evolution as an organizing principle of all nature to follow it. What is more, Quammen travels round the world, from northern Australia, where a disease you have likely never heard of jumps from fruit bat to horse to veterinarian, to the familiar (to his readers) rain forests of equatorial Africa, home of gorilla and chimp and bonobo, of war and bushmeat, Ebola and Marburg and AIDS. He looks at Lyme disease (not a virus by the way). He visits Bengladesh (who else bothers?) to trap flying foxes while wearing a biohazard suit, and sees a scary combination of a dense population inhabiting a semi- submerged land with poor sanitation as well as a sweet bucolic tropical nation. He goes to southern China, home of the briefly appearing SARS, which I was checked for once on a Mongolian flight from China, and where the proximity of humans, ducks, and pigs may make for the next human pandemic in the form of an unstoppable flu.
You must be patient, because none of this has a normal narrative line. Quammen is delightfully anecdotal, but unlike in Richard Preston’s entertaining and Stephen King- terrifying The Hot Zone, he is not penning a novelistic thriller that happens to be non- fiction. His aim is to have the reader understand all the origins of the diseases he writes about, that is, their evolutionary roots. He wants you to know what a virus is, and how the main kinds of virus differ, and how they evolve without being “alive”. He wants you to know how and why some kind of outbreak is mathematically virtually inevitable. But nobody “explodes”; in fact, I thought that given his gentle reprimand to Preston over his using that verb re Ebola, the Saturday Wall Street Journal‘s giving the assignment to review the book to him was at least tactless. Preston acquitted himself as a gentleman, giving the book a mostly favorable review, but that unmentioned paragraph hung uncomfortably in the air.
Quammen ends the book by writing vividly about what a unique situation our human biosphere is, merely in its sheer mass and number of ubiquitous large mammals and their congener species. It is a subject I have only seen in science fiction. And then he closes with a description of a plague of tent caterpillars in Bozeman Montana, and what happened to them. If you read that far, and I think even non- science nerds may be captivated by then, you may finally feel your flesh creep.