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BOOK REVIEW

Biologist explores man-made barriers between us and nature

By Jesse Singal
June 20, 2011

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There is a fundamental imbalance to the developed world. Things were better in the past. Modern medicines or maybe modern habits in general are killing us.

These sentiments have all picked up steam in recent years amid heightened coverage of the myriad ecological and epidemiological problems faced by our rapidly growing human civilization. They have manifested themselves as popular fears that range from the well-founded (questions about whether we should be constantly pumping antibiotics into every human being and many of the animals we eat) to the baseless and potentially harmful (the claim that there is a link between vaccines given to infants and autism).

There’s a general sense that we’ve gone off track, that we face not only a set of problems, but also a system of our own design that endlessly spits out new variations of them.

Into this zeitgeist steps Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University as well as a science journalist, with his fascinating book, “The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today.’’

Dunn is concerned that the barriers we have erected between ourselves and nature are harming us. “Our disconnection from the nature in which we evolved,’’ he writes, “is unprecedented in its extent and in its consequences.’’ Dunn means this to be interpreted loosely and on many levels. It’s not just that the air is no longer as fresh as it used to be. It’s also that the microbes in our guts, many of them useful, have been assaulted by the onset of modern sanitation, possibly giving rise to previously rare ailments like Crohn’s disease (Dunn is careful to note that this and many of the claims in his book remain speculative); or that the same fight-or-flight mechanism that evolved to provide us with a burst of potentially life-saving energy when we encountered a predator makes some of us anxious and depressed now that we have killed off most of those predators.

In short, we have worked tirelessly to build a clean, safe way of living that might be killing us in surprising ways. It’s a broad, provocative argument that gives Dunn room to meander, from the fascinating agriculture of leafcutter ants (which carefully cultivate useful fungi) to the burgeoning movement among some Crohn’s sufferers to intentionally infect themselves with parasites mostly absent in the first world, where the disease is becoming more common, but prevalent in the third, where it is not. He introduces us to an endless variety of thinkers and ideas in anthropology, ecology, zoology, and countless other fields.

Dunn’s writing is a pleasure to read. He is not a biologist moonlighting as a writer; he is both. Thereis nothing dry or clinical about his prose. Occasionally, his language escapes its leash, but for the most part is as inviting as it is colorful.

Dunn also does a wonderful job interspersing history, research, and speculation with real-life human beings. He has a natural flair for drama and tension, and most of the human stories told in “The Wild Life of Our Bodies’’ quicken the pulse, from the saga of a man enlisted by a traumatized village to kill a murderous tiger in early-20th century India to the gut-wrenching tale of a 1942 appendectomy performed by a “surgeon’’ with almost no medical experience on a US submarine while Japanese destroyers patrolled above.

The book is not without shortcomings, however. For one thing, Dunn sometimes fails to fully deliver on some of the more interesting ideas he hints at. It’s tantalizing to think about a link between evolutionary responses to predators and the current spate of anxiety disorders, but Dunn doesn’t spend much time examining what this would entail; it comes across as a throwaway thought, albeit a fascinating one. This happens a few times in a few different areas.

But this is a quibble, really, given how much this book offers. It’s a highly readable, informative mashing of ideas and disciplines.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jessesingalglobe@gmail.com, or on Twitter @jessesingal.

THE WILD LIFE OF OUR BODIES:

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

By Rob Dunn

Harper, 290 pp., $26.99