Book Review: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

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Title: I Contain Multitudes
The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Author: Ed Yong
ISBN: 9780062368621
Pages: 368
Release Date: August 9, 2016
Publisher: Ecco
Genre: Science, Medicine – Microbiology

Joining the ranks of popular science classics like The Botany of Desire and The Selfish Gene, a groundbreaking, wondrously informative, and vastly entertaining examination of the most significant revolution in biology since Darwin—a “microbe’s-eye view” of the world that reveals a marvelous, radically reconceived picture of life on earth.

Every animal, whether human, squid, or wasp, is home to millions of bacteria and other microbes. Ed Yong, whose humor is as evident as his erudition, prompts us to look at ourselves and our animal companions in a new light—less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are.

The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squid with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people.

Many people think of microbes as germs to be eradicated, but those that live with us—the microbiome—build our bodies, protect our health, shape our identities, and grant us incredible abilities. In this astonishing book, Ed Yong takes us on a grand tour through our microbial partners, and introduces us to the scientists on the front lines of discovery. It will change both our view of nature and our sense of where we belong in it.

— From HarperCollins Canada website

I picked up I Contain Multitudes in the close proximity after finishing Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders, which too heavily relied on our harmonious existence with bacteria as its main topic. Naturally, I will draw parallels.

Ed Yong’s goal in this book appears to be proving that our symbiosis with microbes is rooted in our origins, and while many commercial products might tell us otherwise, is absolutely necessary for our healthy lives. From the very first signs of life billions of years ago to modern day, microbes have essentially been dictating the rules by which complex beings evolve, absorb nutrients, battle toxins, and communicate with others. It is not always an easy coexistence, but like a pair of old roommates, we learn to feed off each other’s best qualities.

I think the author does a great job at passing along this message to his reader. The writing is clear and void of excessive jargon, which makes it a great introduction for a complete novice to the subject. I did happen to know some of the earlier examples, however, thanks to the aforementioned Gut.  For instance, the process by which a newborn acquires its first bacteria, and the potential benefits of vaginal delivery vs. Cesarean seemed to have been taken from the same primary sources – that is how closely those were outlined. However, while Enders’ work reads like a well-researched paper by a layman, Yong’s book feels much more academic. I definitely lean towards the latter for meaty information.

If you are new the subject, I can’t think of a better place to start. Lighthearted, all while maintaining the respectable smarts, Yong’s writing is easy enough to approach on your own, or to bring up during an intellectual conversation. I would also highly recommend it to anyone who overstuffs their houses with anti-bacterial products or likes to pop antibiotics every time they sneeze. Pharmaceuticals and media programmed us to think that bacteria and microbes are evil and must be eradicated, which in turn is a very dangerous thing to believe. I Contain Multitudes successfully lays out all the evidence on the table, so that the reader can make smarter decisions in the future. No hand sanitizer for me, folks!

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