"I'd like to thank all the little people," the phrase goes — it's a somewhat pretentious way of acknowledging that a person's own success is due in part to the work of others. Thanking the little people is the idea behind Rob Dunn's latest book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, as he writes about the microbes, pathogens, and various other microorganisms that have shaped human evolution, and how humans have ignored them to their detriment.
With time, humans have become healthier and cleaner. But has that emphasis on cleanliness impeded us as well as helped? Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, says yes — that efforts to distance ourselves from the thousands of other organisms that share our space have likely created more problems than they've solved. "Some of the ways we have distanced ourselves from other species are good; I do not miss smallpox," Dunn writes. "Many changes, though, are clearly bad. In recent years, for example, a new suite of diseases have begun to plague us. … More and more, these modern problems seem to be the consequence of changes … in the species we interact with."
In language that is at times a bit florid — several times Dunn calls for humans to live their lives "where the wild things are" — the author argues that humans need to create a new world, in which they embrace the species that will benefit them and find ways to act more wisely when it comes to ridding themselves of organisms that may cause harm.
If nothing else, The Wildlife of Our Bodies is a fun read — Dunn is a talented writer with a gift for creating images in the reader's mind, and an obvious passion for his subject matter. In addition, his arguments are well-reasoned and convincing. For example, when Dunn writes about the prevalence of Crohn's disease since the 1950s, and the possibility that this is due the developed world's ability to avoid most kind of intestinal worms, his points seem to make sense, and are backed up by solid research.
In the end, Dunn offers a warning for humankind: "If we do not succeed in preserving a rich and useful nature in and around ourselves … the rest of nature will run us over," he writes. "For all the worry about the end of nature, the persistence of life seems assured. … What we should worry about is the end of our nature, the links between humans and other species, links on which our very existence depends." Is Dunn overreaching, just a bit? Perhaps. But he also gives the reader pause to think about what he's said, which — in the end — is what this book does best.