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.
Spillover is a work of science reporting, history, and travel, tracking this subject around the world. For five years, I 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. I interviewed survivors and gathered stories of the dead. I found surprises in the latest research, alarm among public health officials, and deep concern in the eyes of researchers. I tried hard to deliver 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 I traced 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.
The subject raises 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 this book is intended to be 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.
The Tangled Tree
In this New York Times bestseller and longlist nominee for the National Book Award, “our greatest living chronicler of the natural world” (The New York Times), David Quammen explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology affect our understanding of evolution and life’s history.
In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field—the study of life’s diversity and relatedness at the molecular level—is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important; we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived sideways by viral infection—a type of HGT.
In The Tangled Tree, “the grandest tale in biology….David Quammen presents the science—and the scientists involved—with patience, candor, and flair” (Nature). We learn about the major players, such as Carl Woese, the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century; Lynn Margulis, the notorious maverick whose wild ideas about “mosaic” creatures proved to be true; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, who discovered that the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health.
“David Quammen proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story” (The Wall Street Journal). In The Tangled Tree, he explains how molecular studies of evolution have brought startling recognitions about the tangled tree of life—including where we humans fit upon it. Thanks to new technologies, we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition—through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing. “The Tangled Tree is a source of wonder….Quammen has written a deep and daring intellectual adventure” (The Boston Globe).
Yellowstone: A Journey through America’s Wild Heart
In August 2016, National Geographic Books published my book Yellowstone: A Journey through America’s Wild Heart. The origins of this project lie in my longtime relationship with National Geographic Magazine, and my 32 years’ residence in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and are worth describing.
In May 2016, National Geographic published a special issue, devoted entirely to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its iconic place within America’s perception of the natural world. The occasion was the centennial of the National Park Service (1916-2016), which the magazine is celebrating with a number of parks-related stories throughout the year and this all-Yellowstone issue as the crescendo. The editor-in-chief who conceived the Yellowstone project, Chris Johns, gave me the assignment—a flattering opportunity, a daunting responsibility—of writing the whole text. It was, I’ve been told, though I haven’t checked the archives, the first time in the 128-year history of National Geographic that a single author was invited to write a complete issue. The research took me two years, off and on, during which I was also researching a very different literary effort, my Tree of Life book for Simon & Schuster (forthcoming next year). For the Yellowstone issue, I interviewed a broad range of scientists and other people, traveled throughout the ecosystem, and got to parts of the Yellowstone backcountry (by horse, by foot, on skis, and by bush plane and helicopter) that I’d never seen before. What I finally produced was a 15,000-word essay on a topic I framed as “Yellowstone: the Paradox of the Cultivated Wild.” The title as published was slightly different, but that was the guiding concept.
My text was matched in the issue with brilliant images by a large team of National Geographic photographers (led by Nick Nichols), expert maps and graphics, sidebars and captions by my friend and colleague Todd Wilkinson, and the superb work of many other members of the National Geographic team. The issue sold out quickly at newsstands across the country, and has since, for those who missed it, become hard to acquire. But in the meantime we have turned it into a book.
At the request of my National Geographic editors, I expanded the original magazine text, almost doubling its length. To do that, I restored some passages cut earlier for reasons of space, and I wrote several new sections on aspects of the subject that I had always considered relevant and interesting, but for which in the magazine there hadn’t been room. The book gave me a wonderful chance to present this fuller treatment. For instance, I added sections on social attitudes toward wolves; on the unexpected connections among grizzlies, elk, wolves and earthworms at Heart Lake; on Yellowstone as an island ecosystem and the implications of island biogeography; and on the importance of large private ranches as components of Greater Yellowstone. And I tried to reaffirm a point underlying the original version: Yellowstone is a big national park, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is bigger still, but the ideas and values that these places represent—the decisions and commitments they demand—are as big as America itself.
The result is Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart, containing my enlarged text and a rich assemblage of amazing photography—more than could be offered in the magazine. If you still want to read the historic May issue, and your subscription had lapsed, and you missed it on the newsstands, your best option, I suppose, is to spend an extra half-hour in your dentist’s waiting room before your next appointment. (Or read it on this website.) Better still, though, you can lay hands on the new hardback, a beautiful package for the eye and (I hope) a stimulating incentive to deeper appreciation and understanding of America’s first national park. It became available on August 23, 2016, wherever books are sold, at a price far more appealing than root canal.
The Song of the Dodo
The Song of the Dodo, published in 1996 by Scribner, is a book of history, science, and travel. It’s an investigation of a field known as island biogeography, which in its narrow meaning denotes the study of the evolution, distribution, and extinction of living species on islands, and in its broader sense applies to the survival or extinction of species throughout the world, as wild landscapes on the mainlands become increasingly chopped up, by human activities, into island-like fragments. Island biogeography began with Charles Darwin in the Galápagos, or even earlier, and developed eventually into a conceptual framework for understanding the impacts of humans on biological diversity, giving rise to the science of conservation biology. If this sounds purely sober and recondite, please don’t be misled. As I say at the start of the book: “Island biogeography, I’m happy to report, is full of cheap thrills.”
Dodo was awarded the John Burroughs Medal, the New York Public Library/Helen Bernstein Award, and (in Britain) the BP Natural World Book Prize. It was listed as one of eight “Editors Choice” honorees by The New York Times Book Review for 1996. The editors, bless their hearts, declared:
“Very seldom is science written like this. Mr. Quammen is not a professional environmentalist or a scientist. He is an accomplished essayist and a novelist and his book is a richly elaborated work of literary craftsmanship full of roaring adventures, madcap flights of imagination and people wilder than the animals they stalk with him. He is intelligent, playful, and free of cant, so his bad news unaccountably lifts us up, making us rejoice in the ornery strangeness and amazing vitality of nature. Islands, even while they put species in danger, are, to use his words, the flywheels of evolution, and as he makes us see the giddy fecundity of nature he induces a smile again and again over our very fragility.”
—The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 1996
Monster of God
The saltwater crocodile, the Siberian tiger, the Asian lion (yes, there are lions in Asia), and the brown bear share one thing in common: All four are predators big enough, fierce enough, and solitary enough such that one individual can, and occasionally does, kill and eat a human. That puts them in a special category–a psychological category if not an ecological one–that I call the alpha predators. This book explores the ancient, fraught relationships between such predators and people, especially the people who live in close contact with them, and the implications of their terrifying, majestic presence for the way we perceive our own place in the world.
“Quammen, one of those extraordinary writers who can wring all the blood-wet drama out of science without ever resorting to mysticism or melodrama, here tracks man-eaters through history and legend, then deep into their present domains.”
Have you ever wondered why people eat chicken eggs but not chicken sperm? I have, sorry to say, and the answer is offered in an essay titled “The Dope on Eggs.” I’ll give you a hint: anisogamy. More plainly put, the egg contains nutriment, whereas the sperm contains only information. But it took me a week of library research plus a visit to a chicken farm in Three Forks, Montana, to figure that out.
The pieces in this collection are drawn entirely from the latter years of my column in Outside. The book, published by Scribner in 2000, won the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay.
“[Quammen] is the only nature writer who makes you laugh out loud.”
–Mike Weilbacher, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Thanks, Mike. I owe you a Macallan.
The Soul of Viktor Tronko
“Only a handful of American writers have a real sense of the dark business of secret intelligence. David Quammen is one of them.”
–Thomas Powers, author of The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA
Wild Thoughts From Wild Places
“Quammen is no ordinary writer. He is simply astonishing, one of that rare class of writer gifted with verve, ingenuity, humor, guts, and great heart.”
–Lisa Shea, Elle
“Hard and soft at once, like teeth and tongue, is Mr. Quammen’s mind; both qualities are required for these nifty articulations on all those beings that aren’t us.”
–Tom Ferrell, The New York Times Book Review
Blood Line contains three longish short stories, one of which, “Walking Out,” appeared also in American Short Story Masterpieces (1987), edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks.
“All of these stories feature perfectly squared-off endings, prose of surpassing precision, and the considerable psychological energy that stories of fathers and sons generate. . . . It’s a pleasure to read the work of someone who takes almost visible pleasure in writing.”