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.
David Quammen is an author and journalist whose books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), and Spillover (2014), a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three. His shorter books Ebola (2014) and The Chimp and the River(2015) were drawn from Spillover, each with a new introduction. His latest book (August 2018) is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, which explores the drastic revisions in understanding of life’s history on Earth forced by recent discoveries from genome sequencing, and the story of a scientist named Carl Woese. In the past thirty years Quammen has also published a few hundred pieces of short nonfiction—feature articles, essays, columns—in magazines such as Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone. He writes occasional Op Eds for The New York Times and reviews for The New York Times Book Review. Quammen has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award. He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild and remote places. Home is Bozeman, Montana.
Throughout the rest of this website, he will not refer to himself in the third person.
Published by Simon & Schuster, AUGUST 14, 2018
THE TANGLED TREE: A RADICAL NEW HISTORY OF LIFE
On November 3, 1977, the front page of the New York Times carried an article announcing the discovery of a “third kingdom” of living creatures, entirely distinct from the two kingdoms (bacteria and everything else) thought to exist until that time. Above the article was a photo of a man, seated before a blackboard in a lab at the University of Illinois, with his feet up on a cluttered desk. He was wearing Adidas. His name was Carl R. Woese. He had just triggered a revolution that would change how science understands the history of evolution on Earth.
Woese redrew the tree of life, and it has never been the same.
The “tree of life” was an old phrase, an old idea, going back to the Bible and other sources, but Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859) turned it into the iconic image of evolutionary history. Life arose from a single source, like the trunk of a great oak, and diverged into limbs, branches, smaller branches, and twigs, representing the divergence of lineages through time and the origin of species. Modern genetics later affirmed that image, with the canonical assumption that heredity passes downward from ancestors to offspring (or upward, in the tree image) and never sideways from one limb to another. It turns out that assumption was wrong. Genetic sequencing and comparison of genomes, of the sort pioneered by Woese, has revealed the unimagined phenomenon of sideways inheritance.
Scientists have given this phenomenon some fancy names. One is horizontal gene transfer. Another, slightly more suggestive, is infective heredity. In some cases, these genes travel sideways—from creature to creature, even from species to species—by viral infection. That’s supposed to be impossible. Woese’s successors have shown that it’s not just possible—it’s widespread and vastly consequential.
Carl Woese died in December 2012, just before I picked up this thread about horizontal gene transfer and the radically revised history of life. So I never met him. It’s probably just as well: He was famously gruff and unfriendly to journalists and other nosy writers. But for the past five years I’ve studied him and his work and the revolution he triggered—studied them through the evidence of his publications, his archives at the University of Illinois, and the testimony of his students, his colleagues, his assistants, his friends, many of whom I’ve interviewed. He became my Citizen Kane, and I functioned like the faceless newsreel reporter in the movie, visiting everyone to ask: “Who was Charles Foster Kane, and why did he say ‘Rosebud’ with his dying breath?” (If that reference rings no bells, do yourself a favor and watch Orson Welles’s great film.) What I found was a tangled story, a tangled man, and a new tree of life that is not a tree.
The implications of this Woesean revolution involve more than our understanding of life’s history for the past four billion years. They also challenge some of our most immediate and personal assumptions: What is a species, what is an individual, what is a human? What am I?
The Tangled Tree was published by Simon & Schuster on August 14, 2018. Order now:
BOOKS BY DAVID QUAMMEN
by Charles Darwin
The Illustrated Edition
Edited with Burkhard Bilger