By JENNIFER K. BAUER
“It was a strange thing, too, Mr. David,” one man said in French. “When that happened we saw a pile of 13 dead gorillas in the jungle.”
This was Quammen’s introduction to zoonotic disease, when a pathogen passes from one kind of animal to another. In his 2012 book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,” Quammen called it “a word for the future, destined for heavy use in the 21st century.”
Even after this prediction Quammen was surprised by 2014’s Ebola outbreak, the disease the men spoke of and one of many he wrote about in “Spillover.”
“All of the Ebola experts were surprised, too,” Quammen says. “Not just that another outbreak occurred, because that was expected, but that it got out of control and killed so many people.”
Quammen, one of the nation’s leading science writers, will talk about the mysteries of emerging diseases and the future at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12 at the Lewis-Clark State College Silverthorne Theatre for the Stegner Lecture.
As of Saturday, 9,936 people have died from Ebola in three West African countries, with 14,432 lab-confirmed cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the disease hit U.S. soil last year Quammen became an in-demand speaker. People were scared and wanted explanations, he says.
“I was trying to help them be scared and concerned in the right ways because they were concerned that, ‘Oh, it’s going to come get us in America,’ and that was really never the point. The point was it was killing a lot of people in West Africa and it would send sparks to other parts of the world until we put out the sparks in West Africa.”
Quammen, 67, had just finished eating a plate of eggs in Cody, Wyo., when Inland 360 reached him by phone late last week. On assignment for National Geographic, he was hanging out with biologists and “helicopter cowboys” capturing and collaring elk for a migration study. The research is for a 2016 issue of National Geographic that will be devoted to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The magazine deployed six photographers into the park last year for the story. Quammen will write the article.
“Eventually I will have to figure out how to boil it down to 15,000 words,” he says.
Quammen studied literature at Yale and Oxford but learned science in the field of the world’s jungles, deserts and forests. Since 1973 he has lived in Bozeman, Mont., where he moved after college with plans to be a novelist and trout fisherman. After publishing his first book he turned to non-fiction writing as a more lucrative career, he says. A three-time National Magazine Award winner, he has written for Harper’s, Outside, the Atlantic and Rolling Stone and is the author of more than a dozen books.
He doesn’t seek controversy but occasionally his writing can “stir up some feathers.” Two weeks ago an adapted chapter from “Spillover,” “The Chimp and the River,” was published as a stand-alone book. In it Quammen tells the little-known story of how the AIDS virus first appeared in an African chimpanzee in 1908. One upset reader sent him an email calling him an ignorant white American blaming yet another problem on Africa.
“Still people are so unaware of the real origins of AIDS and are so emotional about it,” he says.
As a science writer Quammen is painfully aware of the portion of the population that shuns scientific fact. He calls them “the determinedly ignorant of scientific evidence” and thinks their beliefs put the country at risk.
He cites a Gallup Poll that has stayed the same for the past 30 years: In the United States 40 to 46 percent of the American public does not accept that humans evolved from other life forms. Instead they choose to believe that God created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years.
“Forty to 46 percent refuse to accept the idea of human evolution. Those people are causing a disservice to American science education by contesting the teaching of evolution. That’s an excellent way to encourage the Chinese, Japanese, Germans to produce better scientists than America does,” he says.
When not on assignment, the relationships between species is something Quammen is exploring for a future book about the tree of life, an idea that has been much challenged and revised because of recent work in molecular genetics, he says.
“It’s got some great controversy, great characters and big implications for who we are and how we see ourselves.”
Who: David Quammen on “Spillover: The Mysteries of Emerging Disease”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12
Where: Silverthorne Theatre, Lewis-Clark State College