Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Every Living Thing: A Book Review

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.

'Animalcules' illustrated by
Anton van Leeuwenhoek; c1795.
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.

1 comment:

  1. I noticed with pleasure your 2010 book on PARASITES... in a bookstore in Bethesda, Md. today and thought that you might be interested in the current version of my book on ARTEMISIA ANNUA, ARTEMISININ, ACTS & MALARIA CONTROL IN AFRICA: TRADITION, SCIENCE AND PUBLIC POLICY. I would be pleased to send you an electronic copy if you are interested.

    Dana Dalrymple, USDA & USAID, retired, Washington, D.C.