Book review for “I contain Multitudes : The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life”

Book reviewed by: Mr Cherian Matthai, PIC Member

The title of this book, taken originally from a poem by the great American poet, Walt Whitman (and also the title of a more recent Bob Dylan song) is a line that calls out the multiple paradoxes of the human condition. It has also become a phrase that has been used on social media recently to explain that there is nothing wrong with a contradictory stand or to be different from the crowd.

Ed Yong, who is a London-based science journalist for The Atlantic, uses this phrase in a very different way to emphasize something more ubiquitous but yet unnoticed by most of us – the trillions of microbes that are inherent to us and our world.

Yong speaks about the history of microbial science, starting off with Dutch lens maker Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the “father of microbiology” who identified microbes using a microscope. About 200 years later, this discovery was followed by the work of Louis Pasteur and others who came up with the Germ Theory of disease clouding our view since by labelling all microbes as threats to life.

Even though consequent improvements in sanitation and behaviour such as hand washing (for example by doctors before surgery and by all of us during the current Covid pandemic) have probably saved billions of lives, these have not taken into account the immense beneficial nature of these organisms.

The book is filled with interesting anecdotes and remarkable examples – human babies digest breast milk using a bacteria called Bifidobacteria which then slowly give way to other kinds of bacteria focused on carbohydrates as we grow older. The mitochondria in our cells (these generate energy and have separate DNA passed on from mothers unlike nuclear DNA which is from both parents) were bacteria in their earlier avatars. In fact, if mitochondrial DNA leaks out of cells during an accident, it triggers an immune response that can cause sepsis-like symptoms that can be fatal in some cases. Yong also talks about the much-discussed brain-gut axis and the not yet fully proven impact of probiotics on mental health.

Symbiosis is another important theme in this book, with microbial and animal cells being incredibly interdependent for basic functions like digestion but also others like skin health or for their possible anti-allergy properties. This interdependence is a delicate balance between both microbes and us, which we need to constantly maintain. This becomes particularly important in the Indian context – while we deal with epidemics, we also deal with rampant and incorrect use of unprescribed (or over-prescribed) antibiotics. These can cause tremendous damage to our health, not to mention the fact that they can create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

Modern genomics has been a boon to microbiology and over the last few decades, thousands of new microbes have been discovered. Even within our bodies, the types of bacteria are different – bacteria living on our left and right palms are not the same, or between different parts of the intestine, or even between our left and right armpits.

Overall, this is a great book, explaining a complex concept lucidly. If I had to point out something that is amiss from the book, particularly for an Indian reader, is that he misses out on Indian schools of thought, most notably Jainism that had already taken cognizance of the existence of microbes prior to much later discoveries in the Western world.

Yong with multiple advanced degrees in microbiology and a journalistic flair makes a complex, multidimensional topic easy to understand using metaphors and pithy prose – possibly the most memorable line in the book is when the writer says that “Even when we are alone, we are never alone. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us” – we truly contain multitudes.

P.S: Germs are now more in vogue because of Covid, and while Ed Yong gives a more bacterial view of the world, we can get a more “viral” view from Carl Zimmer (a New York Times Journalist) through his book, “A Planet of Viruses” which is a compilation of essays that he has written. Here too, there are interesting anecdotes including amazing facts like for example, the human genome has a large contribution from viruses and important organs like the placenta evolved from a retrovirus DNA (HIV is from the same family) that infected our ancestors hundreds of millions of years ago.

Mr. Cherian Matthai works on strategy and M&A for a large, global professional services company. In his free time, he likes to read (or listen) to an eclectic mix of books on various subjects.