Posted on by Laurie Garrett



It’s a bit unnerving when the biggest selling fiction writer in the world, specializing in conspiratorial mysteries depicts an evil scenario that is dangerously close to yourself and your work.  Dan Brown’s latest venture into iconography-meets-heinous murder, Inferno, imagines an evil biologist based at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, who kidnaps the Director-General of the World Health Organization.

I work at the Council on Foreign Relations as a Senior Fellow for Global Health. I was trained as a biologist, and though I have never kidnapped WHO’s Dr. Margaret Chan, I have been known to drag her off to a quiet corner for private tète-a-tètes.

Hours after Inferno was published I started getting alarming e-mails and phone calls from friends and family that were devouring the novel on their e-readers. I was worried that Brown would fan conspiratorial flames about CFR and even my personal work. After all, his Da Vinci Code and other novels left millions of Dan Brown fans convinced that dark cabals lurk in the halls of the Vatican, indulging in self-mutilation and global manipulation.

In the end, Dan Brown has done something interesting with Inferno – silly, but provocative. He is delving into the worlds of synthetic biology, dual-use research, human genome alteration and even hypothetical germ line mutation of people. Having devoted a series of bestsellers to castigating religion, Brown now casts aspersions on Science. As should be expected with a genre that mixes 14th Century Dante with 21st Century gene sequencing none of it is really accurate and all tends to nightmarish extremes.

But Brown’s Inferno is asking readers to consider the possibility of a juncture in the near future that finds humanity facing man-made microbes, pandemics and human over-population simultaneously. His scenario walks just close enough to the edges of reality to make for thriller reading. And Biology as a discipline is now delving into human-directed evolution and creation of life forms in ways that merit greater public scrutiny. The real work of science work is not conspiratorially dark and genocidal, as Brown portrays, but there are risks of accidental release of modified organisms and, less likely, terrorism that merit wider attention.

Among the most absurd plot devices in Inferno  are: The WHO owns a private C-130 jet that wings its way around the world; the EU's version of the Centers for Disease Control has a huge secret SWAT team of fully armed, military disease-fighters; global health leaders are so powerful that they can dial a number and instantly tell Prime Ministers what to do; vector biology has reached a stage where genes affecting human fertility can be inserted in our DNA. Wouldn't it be sweet if the impoverished WHO actually did have a budget large enough to finance an agency C-130 and rapid response team? In truth, the agency's rapid epidemic reaction division is bankrupt. No kidding: bankrupt.

The one kidnapping scene that takes place inside the Council on Foreign Relations is, of course, absurd, not only as an impossibility, but also as a literary device.  The book’s evil foil is not employed by CFR, and his connection to the institution seems nonexistent, yet somehow he has access to its facilities. Several times subsequently in the novel Brown references “the Council” and “the CFR” with hints of darkness, but the connection does not work.  The evil-doer could have hauled his kidnapped WHO target to any locale in Manhattan: CFR serves as nothing more than a room inside of which he berates the Director-General. It’s a cheap shot on Brown’s part, poking a finger at the Council without either literary or any other rationale.