Many people think of microbes as germs to be eradicated, but those that live with us – the microbiome – build our bodies, protect our health, shape our identities, and grant us incredible abilities. In this astonishing book, Ed Yong takes us on a grand tour through our microbial partners, and introduces us to the scientists on the front lines of discovery. The book changes both our view of nature and our sense of where we belong in it.
As Yong puts it, “We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that is hostile to the ones we need.”
It’s not just all the anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers we use. Another major problem is the excessive use of antibiotics. On net, antibiotics have been unbelievably positive for humanity. But every time we give them, we are carpet-bombing our microbial ecosystem (microbiome), not merely knocking out pathogens. “A rich, thriving microbiome acts as a barrier to invasive pathogens,” writes Yong. “When our old friends vanish, that barrier disappears and more dangerous species can exploit the ecological vacancies.”
According to the latest estimates, about half of your cells are not human — enough to make you wonder what you mean by “you.” Your human cells come from a single fertilized egg with DNA from your mother and father. Microbes began mingling with those human cells even before your first breath, the first kiss from your mother, your first taste of milk. And your human cells could not have built a healthy body without intimate help from all those trillions of immigrant microbes – your other half.
We are not alone. We have never been alone. We are possessed. Our inner demons cannot be cast out, because they did not move in and take possession: they were here before us, and will live on after us. They are invisible, insidious and exist in overwhelming numbers. They manage us in myriad ways: deliver our minerals and vitamins, help digest our lunch, and provide in different ways all our cheese, yoghurt, beer, wine, bread, bacon and beef. Microbes can affect our mood, take charge of our immune system, protect us from disease, make us ill, kill us and then decompose us.
I Contain Multitudes is hardly a light read – you will close the book with the feeling that we have peered into every microbial niche – but it is an endlessly rewarding one. Yong brings to his celebration of these single-celled organisms the two qualities you want in any science writer: enthusiasm for his subject, and a metaphorical mind. Yong’s zeal for his subject matter is, if you’ll pardon me, infectious; and his gift for metaphor and analogy helps make palpable the mind-bending scope of the subject matter.
In the realm of the life sciences, there is a noble tradition of popular books that, by synthesizing emergent findings scattered through research journals, have reshaped our view of the world, peeling away the old, familiar veneer to reveal inner workings of unimaginable intricacy. In a million tiny ways, I Contain Multitudes will radically change the way you think about the natural world, and the way you see yourself.
This is the world you live in. This is the skin you live in. Make yourself at home.