“I Contain Multitudes:” A Book Review


“I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life” is written by Ed Yong.

Ed Yong (born December 17, 1981) is an award-winning science writer on the staff of The Atlantic. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Wired, the New York Times, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, the Guardian, the Times, Discover, Slate, and other publications.

His book not only covers the microbes that live within us. It also elucidates those that live upon us and around us in our environment.

He makes the point that microbes, in and of themselves, are not bad. It’s a label we apply to the ones that are blatantly pathogenic. But the vast majority of the microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.) that we encounter in our daily lives are not pathogenic … and a lot of them are downright helpful.

This book entranced me and scared me. I came into it already a convert to the necessity of microbes for a healthy life. I came out of with a zeal for living a more all-encompassing life in harmony and cooperation with the microbes around me.

He makes a great case for nurturing and caring for these tiniest of lives. He shows how they are necessary not only to our health but the health of the entire earth and everything living on and in it. He recounts how Florence Nightingale discovered that her patients in hospital actually got well faster and better when she opened windows and let the world into the sterile hospital environment.

The thing that scared me the most about all that he wrote is how fragile it all is. How the balance can so easily be upset both within us and without us. And how crucial microbes are.

Because he is a science writer and has a massive bibliography at the back of the book, one might think the book will be a dry dissertation. It is anything but. He writes interestingly and kept my attention. I found myself sliding into one chapter after the other, anxious for each new revelation.

Yong sums it up this way in the very last paragraph of the last chapter of his book: “We see how ubiquitous and vital microbes are. We see how they sculpt our organs, protect us from poisons and disease, break down our food, uphold our health, calibrate our immune system guide our behavior, and bombard our genomes with their genes. We see the lengths to which animals must go to keep their multitudes in check, from the ecosystem managers of the immune system to the bacteria-feeding sugars in beast mile. We see what happens when those measures break: bleached reefs, inflamed guts, and obese bodies. We see, conversely, the rewards of a harmonious relationship: the ecological opportunities that open up to us, and the accelerated pace with which we can grasp them. We see how we might start to control these multitudes for our own benefit, transplanting entire communities from one individual to another, forging and breaking symbioses at will, or even engineering new kinds of microbes. And we learn the secret, invisible, and wondrous biology behind the gutless worms that thrive in an abyssal Eden, the mealybugs that suck the juices of plants, the corals that construct mighty reefs, the small stinging hydras that cling to pondweed, the beetles that bring down forests, the adorable squid that create their own light shows, the pangolin curled around a zookeeper’s waist, and the disease-fighting mosquitoes flying off into a bright Australian dawn.

I think just about anyone would find benefit from reading this book. It’s an eye opener.


Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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