Things happen when humans mess with the environment. It’s a simple statement, cause and effect. What happens to tiny animal-dwelling organisms (viruses and bacteria) when humans encroach into the territories of their host animals, kill them, and even eat them? They can jump to humans and cause all manner of unpleasant infectious diseases. This jumping over is called spillover, and such infectious diseases are known as zoonotic diseases (or individually as a zoonosis). The complex story of how zoonotic diseases have emerged and are affecting animal and human populations across the globe is the subject of nature writer David Quammen’s new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.
Quammen brings his usual style to Spillover: his global travels as a writer, the story of current research, and the history of science. All melded together, they make for an engrossing read. Spillover is, honestly, a scientific thriller (but nonfiction!), and I really had a hard time putting it down. He took me to Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, and parts of North America I’ve never been. He introduced me to scores of epidemiologists and disease ecologists who work tirelessly to make sense of disease outbreaks, constantly risking their own lives by exposing themselves to pathogens (Quammen, on the other hand, noted several times in Spillover that he is just writing about this stuff: “I didn’t intend to let anyone hand me a Nipah-dripping bat if I could reasonably avoid it”). He brought me close to those bats, as well as pigs, civets, horses, mosquitoes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and somewhat unexpectedly, caterpillars.
While I am happy to know much more about the zoonotic diseases that Quammen focuses on – Hendra, Ebola, Malaria, SARS, Q fever, Psittacosis, Lyme disease, Herpes B, SFV, Nipah, and AIDS – it is the larger, overall message that he shares that I find important. “Shake a tree,” he writes, “and things fall out.” In the last chapter of the book, Quammen offers a long list (he is prone to listing in his writing) of human actions that affect our connectivity to the natural world, and disease. And from those actions will likely come the Next Big One, as it is called by those working on emerging diseases, comparable to the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe in the fourteenth century, smallpox brought to the North American continent in the sixteenth century and killing millions of native peoples, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, polio (in America), also in the nineteenth century, and the current AIDs crisis worldwide. And as the case has been made clear in Spillover, it will jump from an animal to humans. Should it not be imperative that we think about how we treat animal populations around the globe, especially those that harbor zoonotic diseases? Here Quammen raises the question, but does not have much time to go into how to solve the problem. Raising that question and describing the problem in such detail makes Quammen’s Spillover a must read. To me, with its emphasis on the relationship between humans and other organisms, and with its stressing of the importance of biogeography, evolution, and ecology, this book took me back to Quammen’s two other long-researched books, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction and Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind; and it will take a place next to those on my shelf.
Spillover will be released by W.W. Norton & Company on October 1, 2012. Here’s a trailer (yes, a trailer!) for the book:
Hopefully soon I can make that a signed copy to have on my shelf, as Quammen will be in Portland on October 22nd for an OMSI Science Pub. Full details here.
While I received a review copy from the publisher, I should note that David Quammen is a friend. He lives in Bozeman, MT (queue the caterpillars in the book!) where I went to school. He was well connected to the history department there and so I often heard about his research for the book and places that he had been. He also gave lectures at the Museum of the Rockies on this topic, and wrote several articles as well. I saw him last when I was in Montana in June for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project conference as he was on the home stretch with his manuscript. Congratulations on a wonderful book, David.