Skip to main content

The Wild Life of our Bodies – Rob Dunn ****

This book is a little more wide-ranging that I first expected. I had thought the book would be purely about the microscopic life inside of us – species of bacteria and such things – with which we form symbiotic relationships, and how it has shaped us as human beings. Whilst much of the book focuses on this, we also look at the general ways in which how we live and respond to stimuli in the modern world still reflects strongly our historic interactions with all of life, especially predators. All kinds of areas of life – from the way we construct buildings and streets – seem to have been influenced to an impressive extent by the interactions we had with other life when in a more pure state of nature.
What it comes down to with this book – and it’s probably one of the best things you can say about a book – is that I learned a lot and had great fun doing so. There are many interesting little nuggets of information that I wasn’t aware of – I had no idea, for instance, that even today most human births take place during the night, with the likely explanation being that this is the time when, in the past, other members of the community would have been around to provide protection if necessary from predators during those first few moments of the child’s life.
Then there are the big, new ideas that perhaps most of us won’t yet have heard of. One of these is the interesting possibility that many diseases we suffer from in modern times are the result of our losing our intestinal worms and internal bacteria. The argument is that our bodies evolved in such a way as to accommodate this life inside of us, and even to benefit from it – so now we’ve removed some of this life, through the overuse of antibiotics and so on, our bodies can’t function as they were supposed to. This is one reason why, the book argues, that we need in some sense to return to nature, and to restore relationships with other organisms that we have lost.
There are fascinating human stories to compliment the science – which, I should say, is always well presented. We meet Crohn’s disease patients, for instance, who, desperate to get better, travel far from home to seek out worms in order to ‘re-wild’ their bodies, often with a lot of success. And when Dunn is retelling the stories of how some of the new ideas in the book were investigated, there’s suspense in the writing as we eagerly wait to discover the results of experiments, and whether evidence for these new ideas comes up.
Add to this that there is humour and a sense of fun in Dunn’s writing – and this is a book well worth reading. If you want to understand how living things inside of us and around us have shaped and continue to shape human beings, I would recommend this.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…