The Politics of Viruses

A Virus Without a World

The politics of science writing.


All societies have a genre of narrative known as the “just-so story,” which exists to furnish a question about the world—“What makes the seasons change?”; “Why is the US military budget so large?”—with a tidy answer: “The seasons change because the god of the underworld kidnapped the harvest goddess’s daughter”; “Our military budget keeps democracy safe around the world.” The point of a just-so story is to explain not only why things are the way they are but also why they couldn’t be any other way. Floating somewhere outside of history, with all of its contingencies and struggles for power, the just-so story sparkles with the structure of myth.

A variety of mythic creatures populate Carl Zimmer’s slim volume A Planet of Viruses. Written to accompany the University of Nebraska’s 1998 exhibit “World of Viruses,” funded by the National Institutes of Health, the book is a collection of stand-alone essays, each featuring a different virus, with the new edition expanded to include a chapter on Covid-19. Over its 144 pages, we encounter crystal caves hidden miles below the earth, where unfathomable numbers of viruses roil; rabbits with mysterious head tumors that make them look like the mythical jackalope, caused by the same virus that causes cervical cancer; viruses that elegantly hijack cells like master burglars coaxing a lock open without a key. We learn that the word “virus” comes from a Latin word that means both “a snake’s venom” and “human semen,” which Zimmer uses to illuminate the central feature of a virus: that it both creates and destroys.

Zimmer writes simply and with painstaking clarity, as if explaining something to someone who is easily distracted, and frequently employs his gift for metaphor. In this world, viruses appear as magical creatures, shimmering between life and nonlife. Like most of Zimmer’s work, the book has been read widely and seriously, hailed as performing the crucial task of educating the public about science. Eighteen months into a pandemic that has turned epidemiology into a theater of the culture wars, who could deny the need for greater public engagement with science? Both your local vaccine conspiracist and your neighborhood liberal technocrat will say that we need more accessible facts about science, especially when it comes to matters relating to our health, but their agreement ends there. The conspiracist’s goal might be to see more widespread skepticism about the vaccines and the profiteering of Big Pharma, while the technocrat might want to foster public understanding of viral transmission. At its core, the disagreement is about the very notion of what science is. Is science a single, universal process that stands apart from struggles for power and resources—aka politics? Or is science the name for multiple processes, undertaken by different groups of people for different goals, all conducted in the very trenches of political struggle?

How we answer this question is serious business. It has everything to do with what we think we are talking about when we talk about pandemics and, as a result, what we think we can do to prevent them. More to the point, how we answer this question has everything to do with the kinds of facts we think are relevant to the task of educating the public about science. If you think you can write about viruses divorced from social and political conditions, then you also assume that the politics of viruses can remain separate from other questions of power and distribution. Zimmer’s work has been almost universally praised as the pinnacle of popular science writing. But in its framing of what counts as relevant, does Planet of Viruses pull back the veil on the causes of pandemics, or does it mystify them even further?

With his cascade of prestigious accolades, Carl Zimmer is arguably the country’s premier popular science writer. The son of former Republican congressman Dick Zimmer, he began his career in 1989 after receiving a BA in English at Yale University, when he was hired by Discover magazine. Discover was created in 1980 by a former editor at Time who had spent the previous decade watching every issue of the magazine that featured a science story achieve blockbuster sales and decided to cash in on the public’s hunger for accessible science writing. As one of the first publications “selling science to people who graduated to be managers,” Discover was where Zimmer honed his style, eventually rising to senior editor by the late 1990s.

Now the nation’s most lauded explainer of science, Zimmer has expansively described his journalistic beat as “what it means to be alive,” appearing frequently on NPR and on national speaking circuits, and he is also in his eighth year writing the New York Times science column “Matter.” His multitude of best-selling books are widely praised as the “best of contemporary science writing”; in 2016, Yale named him an adjunct professor, saying that “his ability to make science, particularly biology, accessible to the general public is without peer.”

At a moment in which public trust in experts is at an all-time low, scientists and educators alike have hailed Zimmer for serving as a crucial translator between the white-coated technician at the lab bench and the everyday reader. Far from being just another hobby genre, popular science writing is often held up as the key to a problem that haunts the relationship between science and democracy. Ever since the United States emerged triumphant from World War II, anointed as a superpower by its marriage of military and economic supremacy with scientific advances, the problem of science in a democracy has figured in roughly the following terms: If science is necessary for national security and economic advancement, how can it be governed democratically by citizens who are not equipped to understand what happens in the lab?

Among lay people and specialists alike, the postwar national mood was riddled with anxiety about how average citizens could participate intelligently in our society in an age of experts and specialized knowledge, a question sharpened by the threat of the atomic bomb. In an address at the centennial celebration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a university that is at the center of the military-industrial complex, CBS Broadcasting president Frank Stanton made a statement that his audience would have already been familiar with from a thousand op-eds: “The supreme importance of science and engineering in the advancement of modern society is abundantly clear. It should be equally clear that technical competence alone is not sufficient to meet the greatest crisis that faces the free world—the preservation of our democratic institutions.” In other words: How can a citizenry be kept sufficiently abreast of government-funded scientific research so that these often esoteric forms of knowledge can be governed by democracy rather that pose a threat to it?

If this is a key problem facing technologically sophisticated democracies, science popularizers can be viewed as playing a two-pronged role in its solution: They will persuade everyday citizens to care enough about science to keep voting to fund it, and they will help the public understand science well enough to navigate the political and ethical quandaries it can produce. Back in the 1970s, when Time was selling out its science issues, science popularizers like Carl Sagan explicitly understood their work as having a political dimension. But far from being an apologia for scientific technocracy, as peddled today by science explainers like Malcolm Gladwell and Cass Sunstein, Sagan’s writings expressed a kind of existentialist natural philosophy. His “pale blue dot” was not only an icon of humanity’s existential condition but also had something to do, however hazily, with world peace during the Cold War’s scientific arms race. Sagan envisioned the task of the science popularizer as that of equipping the public to govern science, writing in his 1997 book Demon-Haunted World:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

The generation that Sagan feared might emerge is now upon us—but remain calm: Zimmer is here to help. Cast as the silver fox of science writing, Zimmer has been elevated to near-messianic status, a figure whose work will, in the words of one of his books’ reviewers, “blaze a trail for a citizenry lost in scientific illiteracy.” But in a moment in which science is visibly shot through with social and political stakes, is Zimmer’s style of science writing really the answer?

In a speech at Rockefeller University shortly after Donald Trump’s election, Zimmer spelled out his view of how science and politics relate to each other. To Zimmer, they’re not just opposites; science and politics are defined by their oppositeness. Cautioning young science writers about the dangers of presenting “both sides of the story” on issues sanctioned by scientific consensus, he remarked:

If you’re writing about plate tectonics…don’t feel guilty for not reporting on someone who wants equal time for their 200-page PDF online about how there is not continental drift because the Earth is hollow. Does this make your reporting biased? That’s an absurd question for a science journalist. Hello, my name is Carl Zimmer, and I am pro–plate tectonics.

That is to say, politics is something that happens outside of science, not within it. Why people might distrust science is not a part of the story science journalists are supposed to tell. Like all willful naivete, there’s a seductiveness to the optimism here: One cannot be for or against plate tectonics, because one is simply reporting the facts. But such an approach has to bend over backward to bury its head so deeply in the consolations of “objectivity.” In real life, of course, there are glaring political factors at work in the everyday business of how science gets done: Who has paid for the labs and research? Who ends up holding the intellectual property rights? What is the purpose of the research? Is it to build weapons, to engineer a Green New Deal, or to make big bucks? What are the work conditions in which the scientific inquiries are conducted, and in whose service?

Taken as a whole, Zimmer’s oeuvre is characterized by this rigid distinction between science and politics. His breakout hit was Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, published in 2001 at the height of the George W. Bush–era culture wars over whether teaching “intelligent design” in public schools was constitutional. True to form, in the book Zimmer argues that evolution need not have any ideological or political implications—after all, science is not political. That this seems true to exactly none of the actors in the conflict he recounts—from the red-state legislators to the school administrators—does not disturb the placidity of Zimmer’s analysis. His subsequent books on politically weighted science topics (most notably those involving neuroscience and heredity) are uniformly erudite, charming, and—above all—impenetrably sealed off from difficult political questions. For all its encomiums to the empirical, in the end this kind of commitment to an idealistic bit can survive the threat of reality only one way: by escaping it.

Though rich in detail, Planet of Viruses continues in Zimmer’s trademark style. While there is much in the book that’s genuinely interesting, his approach is to serve up glittering strings of facts denuded of nearly all meaningful historical or political context. We learn the mechanics of how viruses hijack cells and are encoded into the human genome, but these natural actions occur in a world evacuated of anything resembling politics. To take just one example, we learn how pathologists figured out that HIV comes from a primate virus, but not that the reason that thousands of gay people died in the AIDS epidemic was that the Reagan administration blocked federal funding for HIV research. To be clear, I don’t mean that the fact of the research embargo is not explored. I mean that it is not mentioned at all.

The result is something like reading a stack of Trivial Pursuit questions all drawn from the same category. The reader is left with a magpie’s array of eye-catching flotsam, the sort of things that you may or may not be able to remember a week later, depending on your capacity for random recall: King Carlos of Spain designed the first mobile vaccination campaign in (checking notes) 1853, conducted by loading a couple dozen hapless orphans onto a boat that would deliver fresh pus, courtesy of their smallpox-riddled bodies, for variolation stops along the American coast. Cholera is caused by a something-or-other named “vibrio,” which means either “living thing” or “to quiver” in Latin—I can’t remember.

Certainly, there is much in this book that will make the reader say “Huh!” But without context to fasten these factoids to a historical or political space, Zimmer’s description of the world of viruses begins to look less like cultivating an informed public and more like casting a lot of erudite pearls. It all smacks of an “In this house we believe in science” yard-sign energy, the kind of political analysis that reckons that so-called low-information voters in the boonies would be less prone to Covid conspiracy theories if only they knew that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. As useful as it may be to someone preparing for a dinner party that threatens to exhaust their reserves of small talk, how does this information help us understand the social and political stakes of scientific research? And if it doesn’t, then what is the point of this kind of science writing—or federal funding for it?

Zimmer mostly begs off having to answer such difficult questions, in the name of inculcating “wonder.” Like an enchanted realm in which toys come to life and animals speak, Zimmer’s nature takes on an agency unto itself, just as human actions and choices are demoted to the sidelines. Viruses “decide” to invade cells. Cells respond with “decisions” of their own. The common cold is a “wise tutor” trying to teach the human immune system to not overreact to threats, and so on. “It’s only a metaphor,” you might think. “When has that ever hurt anyone?” But Zimmer’s metaphorical ventriloquism of nature comes at the cost of abracadabra-ing human agency and politics right off the stage.

The limits of Zimmer’s approach become apparent in moments like his chapter on the influenza virus. Opening with an examination of the term’s etymology (“a lovely word” coming from the Italian for “influence”) before moving to a discussion of what allows the virus to mutate so quickly, Zimmer airily notes that “in 1918, a particularly virulent outbreak of the flu spread across the planet and killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people.” Huh! With a flick of the wand, the capitalist and imperialist context in which the influenza epidemic emerged vanishes. You’d never know that the epidemic was facilitated by troop movements across the European theater of World War I, or that its effects in the United States were concentrated in immigrant communities whose members had come to work in the country’s industrializing metropoles.

Later, discussing avian flu, Zimmer describes how viral mutations lurking in birds’ guts can be passed on to humans, often through farming or poultry markets. One might expect a discussion of the role of factory farming and global trade on these interspecies transmissions, but Zimmer instead focuses on the immediate acts of transmission, noting how the H1N1 virus behind the 1918 pandemic jumped from humans to pigs, then spread from European and American pigs to herds in Mexico, only to mutate and reinfect humans once again in the 2008 swine flu crisis. By Zimmer’s account, the various flu epidemics may as well have originated anywhere—and in any set of social and economic conditions. As he breezily notes, “Starting in 2005, a strain of bird flu called H5N1 began to sicken hundreds of people in Southeast Asia.” But as Mike Davis has shown, H5N1 began to sicken people in Southeast Asia because of a series of human-induced environmental shocks: a new proximity between wildlife and humans, caused by wetland deforestation, which was caused in turn by urbanization and the growth of mega-slums. Davis’s analysis implies that real solutions will require rethinking the basic contours of the global food supply chain and how urban space is organized. In other words, it’s not great news.

Zimmer’s prognosis is rosier, promising that solutions are coming to save us in the form of the inevitable triumph of “science,” if only we will let the scientists do the work for us. Indeed, one of the main reasons Planet of Viruses reads like a fairy tale is that Zimmer’s account is populated by imaginary characters: entities like “scientists,” who collect viruses from “patients around the world” in order to track “the relentless churn” of viral evolution. Appearing as a generic white-coated gaggle unmarked by nationality, race, gender, or class, Zimmer’s “scientists” embark on a quest of universal good within a bubble devoid of anything like conflicting interests. The “patients around the world” are similarly devoid of complicating characteristics. Needless to say, there is no mention of the snarls that private funding can introduce into the supposedly universal scientific morality quest. In reality, many such ventures that help Zimmer’s scientists hunt for viral variants today—entities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation or the US Agency for International Development—come into conflict with local stakeholders in the so-called Global South, who are all too aware that they will not share the profits made from the resulting treatments.

Zimmer prefers to avoid discussing the divergent and often conflicting interests behind scientific inquiry, indulging in a fantasy that humanity is all in it together. As in all cases of naivete clung to well past the point when the believer should know better, the charm starts to wear thin, and something sinister begins to show through the cracks. That something is power. Although nearly all of his book involves parts of the world that have been exposed to viral transmission via their violent colonization by the global capitalist system, it takes 83 pages to find the first of a grand total of three name-checks of colonialism. We find it in the chapter on HIV: “Colonial settlements in central Africa began to expand to cities of 10,000 or more, giving the virus more opportunities to spread from host to host.” With the virus hogging the active grammar, Zimmer treats colonialism as nothing more than human groups moving from one place to another, similar in kind to homo sapiens’ migration from Eurasia into the Americas. It’s worth quoting at length to give a sense of the tone in play:

When the first humans made their way into the Western Hemisphere some 15,000 years ago, they brought…a number of viruses with them. In the sixteenth century, Europeans brought a fresh wave of infection to the Americas. New viruses such as influenza and smallpox killed millions of Native Americans. In later centuries, still more viruses arrived.

It was the viruses that did the killing, you see. While Zimmer later acknowledges that “over 90 percent of the [Native] population is believed to have died” from the Europeans’ “unwitting” transmission of the disease, the observation receives just three sentences and is forgotten by the next line.

Zimmer’s discussion of smallpox offers a stunning exemplar of what Nick Estes has recently described as the “virgin soil” hypothesis, which attributes the unfathomable population wipeout of Native people to sad but ultimately unavoidable natural causes—namely, their immunological naivete with respect to the Europeans’ accidental viral transmission. In other words: Unfortunately, it was inevitable. Of course, this isn’t true. As a universe of scholarly work has shown, the conditions for the smallpox pandemic were the violently imposed infrastructures of settler colonialism. The mission system crowded people together, stripping them of their ability to rely on the land and maintain nutritious diets, and the militarization of trade routes for commodities like fur heightened viral contact between settlers and natives. Narrating pandemics in the passive voice casts a magical veil over reality, as if everyone involved was spellbound and compelled to take the actions they did.

By the latter half of the book, the frequency of the passive voice comes as no surprise, emerging at virtually every point in the story where anything like politics threatens the magical scene. In an astonishing account of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Zimmer writes that “by the time scientists recognized HIV in 1983…the virus had already become a hidden global catastrophe.” But who did the hiding? Nowhere will the reader find mention of the Reagan administration’s calculated embargo on research that could have stemmed a deadly epidemic it all but welcomed as divine punishment sent to afflict the nation’s horde of nasty queers. In vain will the reader search for an explanation of why the rinderpest eradication program failed in Africa, except that it was hampered by “wars.” In a discussion of polio, Zimmer reveals the cause of the disease’s anachronistic persistence in Afghanistan and Pakistan: “War and poverty have gotten in the way of vaccination campaigns. Making matters worse, Taliban insurgents began to view vaccine campaigns as a threat and systematically assassinated vaccine workers.”

Could the aforementioned “war and poverty” have had anything to do with a US foreign policy that treated the region as a Cold War pawn, culminating in an invasion that led directly to an interminable and bloody civil war? Could Taliban violence against foreign health workers have had anything to do with the CIA’s 2011 scheme to use a fake hepatitis-B vaccination campaign as cover to source the DNA samples that confirmed Osama bin Laden’s presence in a town in Pakistan? Pay no attention to the man behind the naturalizing curtain! These kinds of mood-killing questions have no place in this mode of popular science writing.

“Hold on,” you might be thinking. “Fine. But what if politically charged analysis isn’t the point of the book? What if Zimmer’s intent was just to tell us some interesting facts about how viruses work?” Fair enough. But even if we accept that premise, if the ultimate goal of this type of book is to reinforce a public buy-in for the idea that the funding of and trust in experts can avert catastrophic pandemics—which would justify things like the fact that this text was produced with public funding from the NIH—then the solutions Zimmer serves up are still unsatisfying. Writing of the potential for the next deadly influenza epidemic to evolve beyond our current immune capabilities, Zimmer bravely urges that “we are not helpless as we wait to see what evolution has in store for us.” His solution? “All of us can do things to slow down the spread of the flu, such as washing our hands.” With defenders of the federal science budget like these, who needs Rand Paul?

Though the majority of the text is written in such enchanted bipartisan grammar, Zimmer sustains a fugue-like descent into reality in the book’s pièce de résistance, the chapter on Covid-19. Here, although no names are named, the administration of President You-Know-Who comes in for a standard-issue upbraiding of its bureaucratic incompetence: The creation of effective tests was hamstrung in favor of harebrained immigration restrictions; the lessons of the SARS epidemic were ignored, and no personal protective equipment was stockpiled; and when testing finally commenced, it was too little, too late. But with vaccines on the way, Zimmer writes, “by the end of the year [2020], people could see beyond the despair.”

As someone who identifies as a “person,” this is news to me. But who wants to end a fairy tale on a dour note? Per Zimmer’s account, “the scientists” have triumphed as surely as Harry Potter must always beat Voldemort. In a moment when widespread distrust of the vaccines threatens to derail the pandemic recovery, such an optimistic belief in the public’s faith in a unified entity called “science” is itself nothing short of heroic.

For all its charm, Planet of Viruses is filled with the sort of stories you tell children who, however precocious, are not yet ready to face reality in all its terrifying complexity. Pandemics are caused by viruses, and the world is just so. We live in the best of all possible worlds—unfortunately. But it’s precisely the attribution of inevitability that makes these just-so explanations cold comfort. The problem with these magical universes is that, with a hylozoic nature at the wheel of history, there’s very little you can do to control this history. That’s why most stories about magical universes end with the people trying to escape them. They discover that the brutal truth of the magical universe is contained in Margaret Thatcher’s tight-lipped aphorism about neoliberal restructuring: “There is no alternative.”

But here’s the good news. There is an alternative. It’s called reality. It’s dangerous out there in reality. It’s riven by conflicts between people who do not want other people to survive. This reality isn’t great either, but given the choice, I’ll take it. Sure it sucks, you have to fight, and when you fight you mostly lose. Still, on the bright side, it’s the only place you can have any hope.

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