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Predators, Parasites, and Partners that Shape Who We Are Today

by Rob Dunn

Pub Date: July 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-180648-3
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Dunn (Biology/North Carolina State Univ.; Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys, 2008) proclaims that many human ills and behaviors reflect the evolutionary past of a species that has put itself above nature and all other species.

Thus our antibiotic habits have unbalanced our immune systems, leading to attacks on our own tissues rather than invading organisms. This “hygiene hypothesis” may account for increases in autoimmune maladies like Crohn’s disease. The solution? Repopulate the gut with worms that the immune system tolerates or that may suppress the system’s hyperactivity. Dunn writes that Crohn’s and other such disorders are rare wherever gut parasites are common. He points to a cottage industry selling worm eggs and even suggests going barefoot in a primitive latrine in hopes that worms will infect. Some swear by the treatment; others are not helped. Dunn cites studies suggesting that the appendix, supposedly vestigial, is the nursery for good bacteria needed to replenish a gut decimated by antibiotics and provides examples of microbes essential in human and other metabolisms (think termites’ ability to eat wood). The author stresses our interdependence with species on a larger scale. Where cows were domesticated, mutations that allow adults to digest milk prospered. Where agriculture flourished, some grew fat and society developed haves and have-nots. Where venomous snakes abound, human and primate color vision was honed. Throughout the book, Dunn exaggerates his tales to increase the shock value, and he ends with a paean to hope and progress in the form of green city buildings—not just with rooftop gardens, but vertical farms of crops to delight any locavore (for more specific information on vertical farms, see Dickson Despommier’s The Vertical Farm, 2010.)

Dunn provides some useful information and updated evolutionary history, but the book is marred by excessively provocative and often purple prose.