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:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,