Friday, August 01, 2008

Rats, Lice, and History

Our book today is Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History, and it completes the little popular-science triptych we've been indulging in here at Stevereads (an arbitrary stopping-point, since we could, otherwise, cover really, really entertaining popular science books literally every day for the next year without running out of wonderful titles). Zinsser, a native New Yorker who spend his life as an increasingly-famous bacteriologist, wrote this, the best-known of his books, in 1935, which makes it a good deal older than our other two titles, but it's the best of the three, a deep and intensely satisfying study with numerous digressions.

Zinsser sets his task right from the start: to write a biography. But he himself faithfully catalogues his obstacles:

There will be no prenatal influences; no Oedipus or mother complexes; no early love affairs or later infidelities; no perversions, urges, or maladjustments ... We shall have no gossip to help us, no personal letters which there was no time to burn. We cannot count upon the reclame of a libel suit barely averted, or of scandals deftly hinted at. We have not even the comfort of preceding biographers and essayists whom we can copy, paraphrase, or refute. Indeed, we are quite stripped of the sauces, spices, and dressings by which biographers can usually make poets and scientists into quite ordinary and often objectionable people; by which they can divert attention from the work of a man to his petty or perhaps vicious habits; by which they can create a hero out of a successful commercial highbinder; by which they can smother public guilt by domestic virtue, or direct interest from the best and lasting accomplishments of their subject to the utterly unimportant private matters of which he was ashamed.

The habitue of biographies will ask himself how, without these indispensable accessories of the biographical tradesman, we can dare to enter this field. The answer is a simple one: the subject of our biography is a disease.

That disease is typhus, whose global path of destruction Zinsser recounts from earliest times (and all of whose vectors - through lice, through the fleas of infected mice and rats, and through infected nightcrawlers - are covered by his narrative reach) to the present, when the West made huge strides against the disease (many of those strides were made by Zinsser himself, or colleagues he inspired and helped). Typhus is a hugely successful family of bacteria, hardy and opportunistic, most widespread in conditions of abysmal sanitation - conditions that, in a world full of the squalor and waste of human cruelty, are not hard to find. The disease has been rampant in times of war, famine, and concentration camps since the dawn of mankind. It's easily treatable with antibiotics, but the most formidable foe it ever faced was likely Hans Zinsser.

He wears it all lightly, as you could tell from the above excerpt (as is also abundantly evident from that excerpt, with Zinsser's book we are dealing with a level of prose many orders of magnitude more advanced than either Stephen Jay Gould or Carl Sagan - as either one of them would have been quick to concede). Rats, Lice and History is immensely learned and informative, but it is also very funny, very clever, and often very playful. These things are not antithetical to the well-stocked mind, nor are they detrimental to a high purpose. Zinsser has fun throughout his book, and he tries his best to share that fun with his readers (and he's had readers! This book has been through countless editions).

In writing his biography, and especially in dealing with something at once as complex and as simple as bacteria (they are hard to understand, although not nearly so hard as viruses), Zinsser tries to start with the broadest possible canvas: what is life itself? How do we define it? And where did it come from:

Did life originate spontaneously by such progressively complex associations of matter through enzymes - unformed, regulated intermediaries, capable of building up and expending energy? Or did it come to our earth from elsewhere - cosmically, - in which case it would have had to possess the capacity of resisting, without destruction, exposure to temperatures ranging from absolute zero to incandescence. We cannot deny these possibilities, but we have no clue to either. We are beginning to know that all the processes which take place in living beings are governed - though with more complexity - by the same physiochemical laws which govern the reactions in dead chemical systems. Yet this purely mechanistic understanding is insufficient for the final answer, and vitalism is reborn again and again to bridge the gap.

(Zinsser's speculation, though gripping, is in this case fanciful: no living organism could possibly survive the trauma of planetary entry - all Earth life is certainly Earth-originated, although the rest of his ruminations on the flickering boundaries between life and non-life are spot-on)

A hardy disease that thrives on squalor - it's easy to see why typhus in all its various forms would have such a successful life among mankind. That it thrived even in comparatively modern times is well-known and deplorable; Zinsser extensively catalogs its domination of more ancient eras as well:

In earlier ages, pestilences were mysterious visitations, expressions of the wrath of higher powers which came out of a dark nowhere, pitiless, dreadful, and inescapable. In their terror and ignorance, men did the very things which increased death rates and aggravated calamity. They fled from towns and villages, but death mysteriously traveled along with them.

Centuries later, things have scarcely improved:

The Thirty Years' War was the most gigantic experiment in epidemiology to which mankind has ever been subjected. Europe, as we have seen, was a spot map of constant small outbreaks of every conceivable infectious disease; and through this area, for a little over twenty-nine years, armies marched and countermarched, and disbanded soldiers, fugitives, and deserters vagabonded far and wide. Famines resulted and populations wandered in fugitive hordes toward food and protection. Wherever men traveled, disease followed them.

In a withering footnote, one of many swipes Zinsser takes at the carnage of the First World War, he writes:

Nature sets up her experiments of epidemiology in times of war and famine, and when, as in the wars of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, these dreadful experiments can be observed by a competent medical profession, much of value to mankind may be learned. It can well be said that nobody won the last war except the medical sciences. The profit was not worth the loss, but the increase in sanitary and medical knowledge was the sole determinable gain for mankind in an otherwise utterly disastrous catastrophe.

It's precisely this tone, this perfect balance between the frustration of a scientist and the optimism of a humanist, that gives Rats, Lice and History its perennial appeal, and it's a tone Zinsser maintains all the way to the book's conclusion, which is caustic, cautionary, and celebratory all at the same time:

Typhus is not dead. It will live on for centuries, it it will continue to break into the open whenever human stupidity and brutality give it a chance, as most likely they occasionally will. But its freedom of action is being restricted, and more and more it will be confined, like other savage creatures, in the zoological gardens of controlled diseases.

The happy day Zinsser envisioned, when all strains of typhus would be safely confined in laboratories, is as far off today as it was when he first wrote his book; the diseases abound in the modern world, and several modern countries (most certainly including the United States) have toyed with the possibility of developing 'weapons-grade' typhus for use as a biological weapon (it has a satisfyingly high mortality rate if untreated, but it can't readily be spread human-to-human). Sadly, the stupidity and brutality of humanity noted by Zinsser, also seem incapable of eradication. We can only hope a bell-note wonderful book like Rats, Lice and History survives as well, infecting everybody it touches.


1moreslogger said...

STEVEWRITES. Weread! Even reading on an Apple Itouch on a summer evening with loud insects it is what commands attention. Craft.

Hansisgreat said...

There are a lot of books out there about Plague. It's very hard to write an accessible book about it: to cover the science stuff without getting too technical, and the history without getting too dry and academic. This one looks like it has a nice balance. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.