David Quammen, Spillover

David Quammen at ASU: Spillover, Pandemics and Scientific Storytelling

David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (W.W. Norton, 2012) is an eloquent book, weaving a compelling, scientifically-grounded narrative about the potential for emergent global pandemics. I have come to expect nothing less from Quammen, who throughout his illustrious career has elevated scientific journalism to a true art form. As a scientist and enthusiast for scientific literacy, I highly recommend that anyone concerned about disease, ecology and humanity’s role on Earth read this book.

During his recent visit to ASU on November 7 (co-sponsored by CSI!), I had the opportunity to interact with David in a small meeting at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and to hear him speak on the topic of zoonosis (diseases that “jump” between humans and other animals) later that evening.

At the Piper Center meeting, David answered questions about his career in scientific journalism and what inspires him as a writer. The most interesting point David made was about the using iterary techniques to relate scientific information to a broad public with widely varying degrees of scientific literacy. This is a task that requires great skill and consideration for both the reader and the underlying scientific facts. Presenting scientific research in a biased, skewed or inaccurate way to make it more superficially compelling is an affront to scientists and to readers who may become ill-informed about an important issue. On the other hand, going too far in the opposite direction and bogging down the reader with copious amounts of footnotes, charts and data is not ideal either. This approach exalts the scientific research, but runs the risk of leaving people uninterested and scratching their heads. In his writing, David finds just the right balance. He tells thrilling human stories without sacrificing accurate scientific reporting, fusing science and narrative in unforeseen and fascinating ways.

In his evening lecture, David continued to tell stories about humans and the frightening risk of global pandemics. But his larger message was that humans and animals are deeply interconnected. We are not separate from nature: though we may build concrete cities and live in air-conditioned houses, we are inextricably connected to other animals on Earth. This is shown time and time again as diseases spill over from animals to humans – a phenomenon that will occur more often as humans continue to disrupt natural systems. Again, balancing the need for compelling narrative and scientific accuracy, David related three stories from Spillover about zoonotic outbreaks: Hendra Virus, Nipah Virus and HIV. Each example demonstrated the complex and interconnected relationship between humans and our environment and the consequences of humans forcing the rest of nature to behave in new, destabilizing ways.

The big question is: when will a disease spill over and have the same effect as notorious pandemics like the Spanish flu? The answer is unknown. Viruses evolve, travel and try to infect new hosts. Sometimes they are unsuccessful. Sometimes they can’t travel very far. But in an age of intense globalization and industrialization, the potential for a spillover to devastate human populations increases daily. Perhaps if humans come to view ourselves as one species among many, rather than masters of the Earth, we can begin the important work of protecting our natural environment from further disruption.