Are Humans an Outbreak?

Grist Magazine interviewed science writer David Quammen about his new book Spillover. The overall message of this great interview is that we had better prepare for the worst because animal viruses that spillover to humans (think Ebola, AIDS, SARS, avian flu) can’t stop, won’t stop. But here’s where the interview kicked it into high gear: 

Grist: In the last section of the book, you arrive at the unavoidable question: Are we ourselves an outbreak, like a disease?

David Quammen: As I say in the book, outbreaks are an ecological phenomenon. They’re not unnatural in that sense. Certain kinds of species have a propensity for these huge rises followed by these crashes. And so what I call The Analogy essentially is a question that I have put to some of the experts, including the people who study outbreaks in tent caterpillars and forest Lepidoptera: Is it reasonable to think of us humans as an outbreak population? And generally they say yes.

There has never been any large-bodied vertebrate before us on this planet that was anywhere near as abundant. There have never been 7 billion apes of any species. There have never been 7 billion water buffalo or deer of any species. There has never been anything like what we are now. And in that sense we’re an outbreak population … and the thing about outbreaks is, they end.