With the world in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the questions posed by the subtitle of this book are on everyone’s mind. Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Adam Kucharski here takes the reader through the inner workings of contagion. From violence and idea to financial crises and, of course, disease – some universal rules cut right across disciplines. So, is this the most topical book of the year? Well, yes and no.
Ours is the latest generation to be engaged in a blood-soaked conflict that has lasted millennia. The quote “we have met the enemy, and he is us” might come to mind, but no. Rather, as E.O. Wilson once wrote: “It is the little things that run the world“. Historian Timothy C. Winegard here offers a sweeping history of major turning points in human history observed through the compound lens of the mosquito. With an estimated compound death toll of 52 billion an insect that is truly worthy of the title “destroyer of worlds”.
Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
When I reviewed Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms, I remarked that microbes are everywhere. If you are willing to stretch the definition of life a bit further still, there is one entity that is even more numerous and omnipresent: the humble virus. We tend to think of viruses almost exclusively in the context of disease (see for example The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses). But, as virologist and pharmaceutical researcher Michael Cordingley shows here, they are so much more than mere pathogens and have a huge influence on evolutionary processes in all organisms. This book paints a remarkable portrait of these unusual life forms.
Antibiotics have been saving human lives since the drug Salvarsan was discovered in 1932. Penicillin went into mass-production in 1942. This is not a long time when you think about it, but a world without the protection offered by them already seems unimaginable. Not only have they offered protection from diseases such as tuberculosis, and stopped infections following injury or childbirth, they have also allowed us to develop surgical techniques requiring immune system suppression such as organ transplants. However, careless use of antibiotics has accelerated evolution of drug-resistant bacteria such that we are about to lose their protection.