Just a shade under 20 years ago I discovered the science and nature writing of David Quammen. Looking back, it seems like only yesterday when, after hearing him interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, I ran to the public library to procure a copy of his then-latest book Song of the Dodo. Impressed and entertained by his fascinating accounts of fragile island and island-like ecosystems, I made an effort to read his stuff whenever I came across it in places like National Geographic or Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately, even though I’d been reading his magazine articles from quite some time his books like Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind or Wild Thoughts from Wild Places still managed to escape me. But I figured it was just a matter of time before I read one of them. So, when my book group decided to read Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic an excellent opportunity presented itself. And after receiving a copy of Spillover as a Christmas present several years ago I could finally read one of Quammen’s books.
As one can guess by the book’s subtitle, Spillover describes Quammen’s travels around the globe in search of diseases that might have originally started in animals, but later spread or “jumped” to humans. His quest takes him across five continents, beginning with Australia where he investigate a fairly recent outbreak of Hendra virus. From there he visits China and Hong Kong in search of the origins of SARS, Bangladesh to trap bats (according to Quammen bats’ role as a huge viral reservoir is only now being understood), Holland for ill swine, back to US to look at Lyme’s disease and then to Africa. While in Africa, he looks for clues to explain the origins of AIDS and how it was able to circle the globe in what seemed like just a few years.
He ends his book on a somewhat disturbing note. As humans increasingly infringe upon the wilds of our planet through clearing rain forests and harvesting exotic animals (especially nonhuman primates or “bushmeat”), as well as engaging in industrial-scale farming we put our species at risk by not only reducing the diseases original hosts, but also by bringing those diseases closer to us in proximity. And if the past is any credible indicator, once a species population skyrockets, it’s only a matter of time before it’s cut-down by a killer epidemic. With our numbers exploding and our exposure to these diseases increasing, is the human species headed for disaster?
This is a great book. It never gets boring, nor overly dramatic or gross. Quammen does a great job writing about scientific and technical matters in a way that readers can not only understand but enjoy. Therefore, I highly recommend Spillover.