05 Feb David Quammen: “We are a weedy species, and weeds are the last to go extinct”
📸 Photo of David Quammen by Ronan Donovan.
David Quammen is one of the world’s leading science communicators. His work Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, first published in 2013 and translated into Spanish in 2020, just coinciding with the expansion of the covid-19 pandemic, is a key book for understanding the origin and spread of viruses, including coronaviruses. He is the author of numerous books of popular science, essays and fiction. Quammen has also published articles in a multitude of publications, including Outside, National Geographic, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He is now working on one of his next books, focusing on covid-19.
The pandemic sparked my interest in reading Spillover to learn more about how different viruses work and their impact on the environment. Some ideas from Quammen’s book were reflected in some articles on my blog, but I wanted to contact the author to know his vision after almost a year of pandemic and ask him some questions halfway between scientific and philosophical reflection.
You said, before the world knew the true magnitude of the pandemic, that covid-19 was not something new. Even so, were you surprised by the impact of the virus?
Yes, I was, but not by the fact that a dangerous new virus emerged from an animal, that it is a coronavirus, and that the animal was probably a bat. All that was predictable. What surprised me was how unprepared to respond many nations were, especially the United State.
Do you think the pandemic has served to make humanity aware that progress cannot be based on the destruction of ecosystems?
It will be very hard to persuade most of humanity to accept that our ruinous consumption of the natural world is what causes pandemic threats. But we have to keep trying. This event is so bad that it may help to change popular thinking, but it won’t be enough.
Many voices claim that, thanks to the vaccine, we will return to our pre-pandemic lifestyle. But, as we can conclude from your book and from the testemonium of many scientists, we have to change it in order to be able to coexist with other living beings and prevent new viruses from causing even worse pandemics. Do you think that this message has taken root in part of the population or that the political and economic ruling classes are interested in spreading it?
Many people refuse to see the connection between our human actions, the destruction of wild ecosystems, and pandemic threats. It is not just the political and economic ruling classes; it is also ordinary people who continue having babies and using resources, even wasting resources. Human population size, multiplied by human consumption, is the ultimate problem. Politicans and corporate interests carry a share of the blame, but ordinary people with children and cars and appetites for supermarket meat and for travel on airplanes carry responsibility too.
The scientific community is clear that the next pandemic will be zoonotic: would you venture to say which virus is most likely to occur?
Eight years ago, when Spillover was first published, I predicted what the smart scientists I was talking to predicted: the next big pandemic would be caused by a single-stranded RNA virus coming out of a wild animal. That was correct. SARS-CoV-2, causing covid-19. What will the next pandemic be caused by? Probably a single-stranded RNA virus coming out of a wild animal. Maybe another coronavirus. Maybe an influenza. Maybe a paramyxovirus (measles belongs to that group) or another retrovirus.
Southeast Asia and, above all, China, have very favorable conditions for the human population to come into contact with viruses and for them to spread to the rest of the world. Taking into account previous epidemics and pandemics, do you think that greater precautions should have been taken to prevent its spread?
Yes, I think so. But it is not just China’s problem, it is the world’s problem. This said, it is true that the capture of wild animals and transporting them alive toward food markets is one of the most dangerous forms of behavior that can lead to disease spillover.
Do you think that viruses can play a decisive role in the configuration of the future world geopolitical map? Are they already doing so?
Geopolitics is not my field. Probably so, but I have not projected how.
It is often said that, if we do not change our way of life, we may destroy the world. However, planet Earth has already shown signs of rebirth in the past. Actually, isn´t it more likely that humanity, like the Malacossoma distria, may be the one endangered by uncontrolled proliferation?
No. People say, «Oh, we are driving species extinct, but we do not recognize that we will drive ourself, Homo sapiens, extinct!” They do not understand ecology and extinction. We are a weedy species, and weeds are the last to go extinct. I discuss that in this article.
If you had to tell a person who knows nothing about science what are some keys to avoid situations like the one experienced by humanity in 2020, what would you say?
Leave wild animals alone. Do not capture them, do not carry them live to markets. Bats especially. And also rodents an other primates. Leave them alone, let them be wild and beautiful and undisturbed.
📸 Photo of David Quammen by Ronan Donovan.