Deadly diseases, infectious or not, are a great theme of recent nonfiction. People are much more concerned with the dark invisible menaces to their lives than they are with the Big Bang, Schrodinger’s cats and fullerenes. Well-written books on diseases bring real science into the daily routines and the night thoughts of susceptible readers.
“Deadly Feasts” is an intriguing account of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, as defined by the late Lewis Thomas in 1983 when he was asked to compile a list that might replace “the old, biodegradable Wonders.” Thomas came up with a varying assortment, the third of which was “an infectious agent known as the scrapie virus, which causes a fatal disease of the brain in sheep, goats and other laboratory animals.”
Richard Rhodes expands upon Lewis’ third wonder by putting on center stage transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, a form of the scrapie virus. These diseases are caused by an obscure agent that may be all protein, except for the fact, as Thomas noted, that “protein, as far as we know, does not replicate itself all by itself, not on this planet anyway.”
“Looked at this way,” Lewis observed, the agent “seems to be the strangest thing in all biology and until someone in some laboratory figures out what it is, [it is] a candidate for modern Wonder.”
Earlier this month, Lewis’ wonder became even more wondrous when Stanley Prusiner was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for his work uncovering the infectious particles that cause brains to wither. These particles, known as prions, may be involved in such degenerative diseases as kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and “mad cow” disease, and as Rhodes makes clear in “Deadly Feasts,” prions may be able to jump between species so that such seemingly disparate practices as cannibalism among the Fores tribe in New Guinea, interhuman tissue transfers (Rhodes’ “High Tech Neo-Cannibalism”) and the forced cannibalism of livestock-fed ruminant proteins (including brain proteins) play a common, if not frightening, role spreading encephlopathies (brain diseases).
Rhodes was brave enough to enter this scientific battlefield. Even with the Nobel prize being awarded, there are still more wonders around, and there are no definitive winners, not even good guys and bad guys, a quality that seems almost obligatory in most books on science. Nevertheless, Rhodes manages to give his book a clear structure, describing systematically our progressive knowledge about kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, scrapie, mink encephalopathy and bovine spongiform encephalopathy. He also presents a discussion about epidemiology and public health policies.
Rhodes relies on extensive interviews, on-the-spot observations and quotes from literature. He obviously gained the confidence of his main dramatis personae, including Carlton Gajdusek, the classic explorer of the kuru disease of the Fores and the advocate of the hypothesis that these diseases propagate by crystallization with the abnormal prion protein as a trigger.
“Deadly Feasts” captures events through mid-1996, so it is as up to date as a scientific paper on the subject would be. (Some haste, however, seems to have affected the structure of the book, mainly in the chaotic use of abbreviations that are explained in the reliable glossary.) The main problems with journalistic reporting from the scientific battlefield are that the reporter unwillingly sides with some participants and that he and his readers will judge scientific arguments without the possibility and opportunity to go into the details. And the god of science is in the details.
In some places in “Deadly Feasts,” one has the feeling of being in a hospital’s delivery room wearing non-sterile street clothes. The baby hasn’t been born, and it may not be a baby at all. The greatest danger of reporting on science is premature reporting. What has not been published and discussed in learned magazines should not be leaked to the broad public; but it is hard to resist the temptation, and so the bulk of scientific journalism is premature reporting. However, “Deadly Feast” is a reasonably detailed and carefully edited book, not a newspaper article. It brings together broad perspectives and shows at least some of the complexities of modern epidemiology.
“Deadly Feasts” is on safe (or safer) ground in its chapters on the public health policies of the United Kingdom and the United States during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy affair. The four riders of the possible apocalypse, the industrial lobbyist, the bureaucrat, the politician and the popular bonehead who does not much believe in invisible agents may have started a future human encephalopathy episode, be it kuru, mad cow disease or some sort of other syndrome, which might be prevented.
We have to wait and see and remember what the scientists, Rhodes and other frank and careful reporters have said in 1997. We will have to wait and hope that we do not incubate any encephalopathic wonder. “Deadly Feasts” is both a reminder and a form of prevention. That’s the best a book can do.