Symposium

A Discussion About (Mostly) Books As They Relate to a Theme of Contemporary Interest


Everything comes from somewhere

The largest moon I’ve ever seen hung just out of reach over a wine-dark stretch of the Caribbean Sea. I was living at a research facility just outside of Basseterre, Saint Kitts, studying Parkinson’s disease, among other things, in the island’s buzzing heat.

For the scientists who periodically flew in, the main draw was our monkeys, those gorgeous African vervets that overrun Saint Kitts and her sister island, Nevis, their bushy fur shot through with silver. We used the monkeys for experiments that occasionally bothered me for their cruelty, but we were people of science; this was all in service of that greater good. Even the poor experimental outcomes were meant to tell our story.

In the studies I later undertook on disease ecology—the dynamics of the things that kill us, how they spread, where they come from, and what we do to provoke them—I would realize that I came away from Saint Kitts more convinced than ever of science’s storytelling force, and of the power of the narratives it champions.

David Quammen’s 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, begins with an epigraph from the Christian manual for the end of history:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:8)

Those apocalyptic overtones suit Quammen’s project: singing the ballad of “the Next Big One,” the disease that will end humanity, the thing that will eradicate us like the hundreds of species we’ve destroyed over the last five hundred years. Quammen believes—and I don’t think he’s wrong—that death and hell will ride in on the back of zoonotic disease, the kind of illness that jumps fluidly between animals and humans. The kind that “spills over.” Diseases like Ebola, HIV, West Nile virus, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and SARS, to cite a few familiar names. This will be our fault.

Quammen writes, “To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.” When we drive an infectious agent—virus, bacterium, protist—out of its natural habitat, it needs to find a new home or go extinct. And we are so magnificently available, the seven billion of us.

The importance of the way science tells its stories, and the characters we play in them, can’t be overstated. The illumination of this fact is Quammen’s real achievement in Spillover, which weaves together disparate stories by braiding their similarities. The animals implicated—horses, gorillas, bats, ticks, and more—are actors that are as important as humans, and their weighty stories are intimately intertwined with our own: too intimately to unweave. When infected bats drop their guano near horse stables, the horses die first, then the humans, as was the case with Hendra virus. Or the tale might start earlier, as with HIV in the early part of the twentieth century, with a spillover from an African chimpanzee infected with simian immunodeficiency virus, whose carcass was found and used for bush meat.

Quammen insistently uses the pronoun we to imply a powerful collective responsibility in which the burden rests squarely on the shoulders of Homo sapiens, “wise man.”

We shake the trees, figuratively and literally, and things fall out. We kill and butcher and eat many of the wild animals found there. We settle in those places, creating villages, work camps, towns, extractive industries, new cities… We visit monkey temples in Asia, live markets in India, picturesque villages in South America, dusty archeological sites in New Mexico, dairy towns in the Netherlands, bat caves in East Africa, racetracks in Australia—breathing the air, feeding the animals, touching things, shaking hands with the friendly locals—and then we jump on our planes and fly home.

Where does action end and story begin? I could talk about the science behind diseases, about how different infectious microbes slip from animals to humans and back again, slivering into increasingly deadly shards; I could relate a former professor’s story as he told it to us, casually, about venturing into the Congo in ’95 to fight an outbreak of Ebola, and how minuscule that outbreak now seems. I might even recall the first time I arrived at the lab in Saint Kitts, and I had to get a tuberculosis test intended for our vervets because I’d neglected to get one stateside—the test, I was told, was to protect the monkeys from whatever I might be carrying. The barrier between us is so porous. The monkeys died anyway.

The biblical epigraph from Spillover gets to the heart of the matter. No one knows what the Next Big One will be; no one knows yet how the story will end. Will it be careless, impersonal? Will the paradigm be inverted so that we are totally helpless at the hands of another species? Will we die like the vervets?

I can say from experience that some people, if they hear you’re writing a book about such things—about scary emerging diseases, about killer viruses, about pandemics—want you to cut to the chase. So they ask: “Are we all gonna die?” I have made it my little policy to say yes.

In Spillover, Quammen shows how powerful scientific narratives are, how isolated data points grow into larger tales. It’s not that science doesn’t tell enough stories, or that it tells the wrong ones: it’s that, all too often, we’re not willing or able to listen to them.

I guess it’s really only time that separates us from the beginning and the end, from our hominid ancestors and our eventual microbial conquerors. That full Kittitian moon was, I learned later, the closest it would get to Earth in our respective orbits around the sun. And when the Next Big One comes, it will watch silently, drawing by turns nearer and farther away.

-Bijan Stephen

Bijan Stephen is an associate editor of the New Republic. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, the Paris Review, n+1, Matter, and VICE, among other publications.

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