Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why Quammen's Spillover is worth Your Time

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.


Anonymous said...

"Pathogens from people, cats and other land animals are entering the oceans and attacking sea mammals. A parasite from opossums is killing California sea otters; a parasite from cats is killing dolphins.
Although data are still new, these “pollutagens” seem to be on the rise. Furthermore, drug-resistant bacteria from humans have been found in sharks and seals, raising the chance that the bugs could mutate and reinfect humans, who might be ill equipped to fight them.
Thoroughly cleansing wastewater and expanding wetlands that buffer land from sea could lessen the pollutagen threat."

It goes the other way, too. Wildlife is suffering new diseases we don't research.

I read the Spillover book, last fall, and liked it. Very well written but I didn't find much new in it.


Anonymous said...

I love everything I've gotten my hands on written by Quammen, so I'll definetely be looking for a copy of this one too. I know I'll be interested, even though I find such subjects scary and depressing.....L.B.

Indy said...

Quammen's "Song of the Dodo" was what convinced me to be an evolutionary biologist, and I picked this up last winter and thought it was one of the best non-fiction books I'd read in a very long time.

I'm not a regular comment leaver, but cue this morning, when Stingray was like, "Hey, Steve Bodio has a book rec on lethal diseases! You like those!" "...yeah, that'd be the one I've been trying to loan you and LabRat on your Kindle for the past six months!"

In short: I thought it was well-written too. Although a little terrifying; my parasitologist labmate refers to bats as "tiny parasite space shuttles." Apparently true for very lethal viruses, too!

Matt Miller said...

I found it fascinating and a page turner in its own way.

I would be interested in other opinions on the Lyme disease part. Quammen raises the idea that Lyme disease is NOT related to high white-tailed deer populations, but instead due to low forest wildlife diversity (including predators) and a subsequent population explosion of white-footed mice.

That's an interesting idea, but I am skeptical on that one. I have read (or witnessed) nothing to suggest that there are fewer rodent predators in the eastern and midwestern forest--there are large numbers of coyotes, foxes, raccoons, great horned owls, etc.

Certain birds and wildflowers have declined in eastern forests to be sure (in no small part due to deer overpopulation) but I don't see how that would affect mouse populations.

I suspect that continuing research will find that large numbers of deer equals increased cases of Lyme disease. But I could be wrong.

Other thoughts welcome.