The next big and murderous human pandemic, the one that kills us in millions, will be caused by a new disease-new to humans, anyway. The bug that’s responsible will be strange, unfamiliar, but it won’t come from outer space. Odds are that the killer pathogen-most likely a virus-will spill over into humans from a nonhuman animal.
David Quammen’s Spillover is a work of science reporting, history, and adventuresome travel, tracking this subject around the world. For five years, Quammen shadowed scientists into the field-a rooftop in Bangladesh, a forest in the Congo, a Chinese rat farm, a suburban woodland in Duchess County, New York-and through their high-biosecurity laboratories. He interviewed survivors and gathered stories of the dead. He found surprises in the latest research, alarm among public health officials, and deep concern in the eyes of researchers. Spillover delivers the science, the history, the mystery, and the human anguish as page-turning drama.
From what innocent creature, in what remote landscape, will the Next Big One emerge? A rodent in southern China? A monkey in West Africa? A bat in Malaysia that happens to roost above a pig farm, from which hogs are exported to Singapore? In this age of speedy travel between dense human populations, an emerging disease can go global in hours. But where and how will it start? Recent outbreaks offer some guidance, and so Quammen traces the origins of Ebola, Marburg, SARS, avian influenza, Lyme disease, and other bizarre cases of spillover, including the grim, unexpected story of how AIDS began from a single Cameroonian chimpanzee.
Spillover asks urgent questions. Are these events independent misfortunes, or linked? Are they merely happening to us, or are we somehow causing them? What can be done? But it’s more than a work of reportage. It’s also the tale of a quest, through time and landscape, for a new understanding of how the world works.
This event is part of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing Distinguished Visiting Writer’s series. It is co-sponsored by CSI as well as Barrett, the Honors College, the Institute for Humanities Research and the School of Letters and Sciences.
About David Quammen
David Quammen was born in 1948 and raised in the suburbs of Cincinnati, closely adjacent to a hardwood forest. It was here he spent much of his boyhood, until bulldozers came and scraped the forest away, a formative experience. In 1973, after education at Yale and Oxford and the publication of one novel, he moved to Montana. His second book, a spy novel, was released in 1983, and another spy novel, The Soul of Viktor Tronko, based on historical events in the case of a certain Russian defector, was published by Doubleday in 1987. Blood Line: Stories of Fathers and Sons was published by Graywolf Press a year later.
Quammen began to develop into a nonfiction writer, working as a columnist for Outside Magazine for 15 years. Selections of these columns, along with those from other magazines, comprise his four books of short nonfiction: Natural Acts (1985), The Flight of the Iguana (1988), Wild Thoughts from Wild Places (1998), and The Boilerplate Rhino (2000). A revised, culled, and re-expanded edition of Natural Acts was published by W.W. Norton in 2008, and he has written four full-length nonfiction books: The Song of the Dodo (1996), Monster of God (2003), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), and Spillover (2012).
Since 1999, Quammen has worked with National Geographic, beginning with a series of three stories about J. Michael Fay’s epic 2000-mile survey hike through the forests of Central Africa, an expedition that became known as the Megatransect. He now holds a position as Contributing Writer, and in 2004 wrote the National Geographic cover story “Was Darwin Wrong?,” which won the third of his National Magazine Awards. He holds honorary doctorates from Montana State University and Colorado College, and has received a Rhodes scholarship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction. From 2007 to 2009 he served a full three-year term as Wallace Stegner Professor of Western American Studies at Montana State University. He lives in Bozeman with his wife, Betsy Gaines Quammen.