Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category
Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys
by Rob Dunn
Harper 2010 ISBN 978-o-06-143031-2
“The biological world does not revolve around us… life is smaller than we imagined, …we are a smaller part of life than we imagined,” and we occupy a “marginal position in the biological universe” (Every Living Thing p. 59 – 60). With Rob Dunn, you know where we stand. But from that marginal position, he’s written a fascinating book about the life we share our planet with, and the key people who’ve helped us learn what we know about that life.
I found Every Living Thing to be a eye-opener in two ways. First, it reminded me forcefully that in spite of all that we know, we still don’t know much. For someone who once believed (albeit a very long time ago) that all the answers were out there – you just had to go to the right library and ask the right question – it was both bewildering and liberating to realize that what we don’t know is actually in the majority. To contemplate the vast quantity of scientific knowledge stored in academic libraries and realize that it is only the beginning is truly shocking.
Second, Dunn has illuminated the lives and accomplishments of some people who are frequently mentioned only briefly, even in the most interesting science books. I knew that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered Giardia lamblia when he observed it in his own stool by looking through his own glass microscope lenses. I did not know that he was the first person known to observe microscopic life of any kind; that he discovered two entire kingdoms of life; that he was a family man with five children. I didn’t know that two scientists who changed the world in very different ways – Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan – were actually married to each other at one time. The book is full of surprises like that.
If there is anything that makes Every Living Thing a challenge, it’s frequent jumps through time and space, and from third to first person narrative. Far from being chronological, the narrative draws unexpected connections throughout. The reader who is fully engaged and paying close attention will be fine. Others may feel suddenly disoriented and have to retrace their steps to find out how they got from 1960s California to 1848 Brazil; from first person contemplation of becoming a father, to endosymbiogenesis. The connections are relevant; they clarify and enlarge the picture, but it is, at times, quite a ride.
Dunn has a talent for explaining complex science in a way that the general reader can understand and he combines this talent with great storytelling. This grounds the people he writes about in a context of everyday life we can all relate to, and results in a very interesting and relevant science book. It’s easy to imagine that Every Living Thing will end up in the reference section of a lot of personal libraries, including mine.
At one time, I was a great fan of Stephen Jay Gould, but today I’d have to say that both in print and online, Rob Dunn is my favourite science writer. I hope this strong beginning is just the first of many fascinating science books.
An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases.
By Moises Velasquez-Manoff.
Scribner; 2012 ISBN 978-1-4391-9938-1
“No matter who we are, we evolved with many more parasites and commensals, both large and small, than we generally encounter today. The implication—and let’s face it, the hope—is that reestablishing contact with some of these organisms can rebalance the immune system.”
If Moises Velasquez-Manoff were to sum up his latest book, An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases, in under fifty words, the quote above would be a good choice (p. 61). In recent years, a growing number of researchers have explored the relationships between humans and the species that live with us—both those that cause disease and those that do not—and found evidence that we may be better of with many of them than without. Framing the information within his own experience of allergy and autoimmune disease, Velasquez-Manoff comes at this body of evidence from every conceivable angle, and by the last page one cannot help but be thoroughly convinced.
This topic, in the hands of someone suffering from allergies and autoimmune disease, could easily have come across as pseudoscience, but Velasquez-Manoff is meticulous about pointing out what is actually known through scientific research, and what is still theory or speculation. He deftly balances anecdotes with comments from reputable scientists and medical specialists, and his obvious grasp of the difficulties of proving causation lends the work great credibility. Similarly, his exploration of the “hookworm underground,” where individuals who are not medical professionals sell worm infestations to ill and desperate people, might have appeared sensational, but instead seems appropriate in the context of the narrative.
The examination of similar evidence from many different directions, however, occasionally makes one feel that the point has been made again. And again. By the time the author writes “Enough! What to do about it?” in the last chapter, the dedicated reader who has stayed the course is bound to breathe a grateful “yes!” This is not to say that the narrative is boring; it is not. But brevity is not its greatest charm.
One discussion in particular stands out from the rest of the book in both tone and relevance, and that is the author’s detailed character assassination of Jasper Lawrence, one of the “hookworm underground” operators he meets. It’s unclear why Velasquez-Manoff feels it’s necessary to aim a stream of accusations – which may or may not be justified – at Lawrence. At best, Lawrence is anecdotal; he operates outside of mainstream medicine and doesn’t contribute to the scientific literature. At worst, he’s irrelevant. If the intent is to warn off anyone considering buying parasites from one of these companies, a clear explanation of the risks would have been a better choice.
An Epidemic of Absence is a good book about a subject that’s likely to become more mainstream, and more important, as the science progresses. If you read nothing else, read the last chapter for the essence of the book. Then, if you want to understand it all thoroughly, start at the beginning and read the whole thing.