I Contain Multitudes: the microbes within us and a grander view of life by Ed Yong

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I Contain Multitudes: the microbes within us and a grander view of life by Ed Yong

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: James Donald
Reviewed by James Donald
Summary: An amazing work of art that blows the doors wide open on the most exciting, misunderstood and ever-changing aspect of Biology.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: September 2017
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784700171

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The world you know is a lie. There is no such thing as good or bad microbes. Sickness and health are all far more complex than we thought. Things designed to save us may kill us and things we think would kill us may save us. Welcome to the modern study of Microbes.

Ed Yong is a genius. The trail he is treading is a well-worn one with pioneers like Darwin, Morris and Dawkins to live up to. How do you approach such a path with a new subject? You have to be different. Yong's approach was more like Max Brooks' World War Z than The Selfish Gene. He tours the world, follows the story and meets up with the experts in this exciting field. We meet one of the brightest scientists in the world who reclusively hides from publicity and calls his students professors. Another leading researcher meets Yong in a style that sounds more like a Cold War dead-letter drop. Each meeting is described briefly but much like Stephen King, Yong is able to do a lot in terms of characterisation with very few words. With a writer's skill he draws us into every new meeting.

Then there is the science. As I say in my intro – everything you know is a lie!

As a scientist I am used to this. Simplification leads us to start each new year of science education with the words everything you've learnt so far is a lie from Primary School through to Post-Graduate level this simplification goes part and parcel with the subject. This takes it to another level entirely. It is fair to say that this changes everything. There is a science that was started in the 1600s by Antony van Leeuwenhoek but it is a science that has gotten almost everything wrong right from the start. Bacteria became demonised and we have waged war against them from their discovery. About 50 or so years ago the idea that some bacteria were good started to gradually gain traction. Under the radar but gradually expanding Yong reports on the science that follows on from this; a science that may save us all.

There is no such thing as good or bad bacteria. The bacteria that causes blood poisoning is vital to your health in another part of your body. The bacteria that you need to survive will kill you if they migrate to another part of your body. Our guts employ viruses to control the population of symbiotic species and, in fact, the concept of symbiosis needs to be rethought. The process that created mitochondria from early bacteria is an ongoing one you can find in modern-day insects and trees. Thin people have one type of gut fauna and fat another… but are we looking at cause or symptom? What of other diseases we think are caused by diet, lifestyle and so on?

It is so exciting to read the evolution of this subject through the research and travels of Yong. Nothing is certain, there are so many questions and answers that just raise more questions. This is true science, ever changing, ever revealing and riveting. We are literally faced with our own demise either from disease, ecosystem collapse or something utterly unexpected. This new science is the only thing that will save us…

Read this book.

Further reading: The Naked Ape: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by Desmond Morris, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins, The Naked Man by Desmond Morris and On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor).

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