2018-01-15

Book Review: "I Contain Multitudes" by Ed Yong

I've recently read the book I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. It is a very broad and reasonably (for a general-audience text) deep exposition of the history and recent work in microbiology and biochemistry, covering the multitude of ways that microbes originated, shaped, and continue to affect life on Earth. In particular, it covers the impact of microbes on diverse ecosystems from shallow coral reefs to island jungles, and frames analysis of human digestive and immune systems in terms of island ecosystems as well after accounting for the associated microbiomes. Its broad goal is to show just how essential microbial life is to other life (often with reference to how model animals can be bred to be sterile but consequently have health problems), to the extent that organisms cannot really be characterized to have the functions that give them their identity without their microbiomes.

This book is moderately long, but it is quite engaging and reads quickly. One of the things that I really liked about this book was that the author was careful to be nuanced about developments in the field, without dampening his obvious enthusiasm for the subject as a whole. Whether it was through descriptions of the scientific controversies over "hologenomes", accounts of the problems with probiotic dietary supplements in general consumer markets, or the subtle ways that different forms of symbiosis (mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism) exist on a sliding scale, blend into each other depending on context, and are almost always built on foundations of managed/tamed conflict & cheating (even in the case of mutualism, which is too often cast with Pollyanna-ish connotations), he didn't try to cover up such issues, yet that didn't detract from the overall narrative. One thing that did seem weird was that the author at various points cautioned against using militaristic imagery for describing the immune system given the complexities of the immune system microbiome, yet there are a few places where he falls into that trap anyway; it isn't clear whether this is by accident, or if this is an acknowledgment of how entrenched such imagery is in the popular imagination that there aren't any suitable alternatives for writing to a general audience. Another was that the author, at a few points, repeated a few sentences or a short passage at the beginning of a chapter nearly verbatim near its end, though I will say that because he didn't overdo this, it added to the narrative by underscoring key ideas rather than seeming like bad writing. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in science, nature, or human health.

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