I Contain Multitudes

There are two suspicions, which are related, about human beings which go back a long way in human thought. One is that we are composed of a myriad of miniscule particles. The other is that our psychology is really fractured, so that the unity of consciousness we normally enjoy is a temporary construct at best.

The former suspicion goes back to the Greeks in their theory of atomism (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atomism-ancient/) Leucippus (5th century BCE) is the earliest figure whose commitment to atomism is well attested. Since the very word ‘atom’ (ἄτομος) means ‘indivisible’ the Greeks could hardly be blamed for not discovering ‘sub-atomic’ realities. It took until the 20th century for modern physics to uncover the truly weird wriggling morass of particles that is down there. In whichever way the physics is understood, few now deny that our bodies are an elaborate composition of tiny physical particles. Shakespeare expressed it well (in Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene 1, http://absoluteshakespeare.com/plays/measure_for_measure/a3s1.htm).


‘Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains 
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get,
And what thou hast, forget’st’.


The latter suspicion is found in The New Testament (Mark 5:1-20, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark%205:1-20) in the story where Jesus cures the madman in the land of the Gerasenes. The illness, understood in 1st century Palestine as ‘demon possession’, sounds a lot to us today like schizophrenia. Perhaps even multiple personality disorder. Famously, the madman cries out to Jesus – “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” We fear that the many voices in own minds will kick out the Gareth Malone and collapse into the cacophony and bewilderment of dementia.


So we’ve had some time to get used to the idea we’re not whole, separate or self-subsisting. The next revelation, as delivered by Ed Yong (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Yong) and his colleagues in ‘microbiome’ science, is just as unsettling. Your body is a sack full of life rather than a single organism which is ‘you’. There are, in fact, vast collections of bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic organisms that co-exist as the bodies of animals. While scientists have long been aware of the presence of some microbes, their abundance and significance have only been truly understood with the advent of tools that reveal their genetic identity. In I Contain Multitudes, Yong guides us through the animal kingdom to explain how microbes facilitate digestion, reproduction, and other functions integral to the survival of a species. In humans for example, microbes regulate inflammation, an immune response linked to dozens of chronic conditions. In fact, in the absence of symbiotic microbes, life as we know it would quickly collapse. Yet it was only recently that microbes were understood to be more than disease-carrying bugs and more recently still that scientists have begun to understand their potential medicinal power.


The evidence for these (some might find unpalatable) truths is set out beautifully here in this book. The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. Those in cows and termites digest the plants they eat. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squids with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people. This is excellent science, and gives us a microbe’s view of the world in the same way that Dawkins gave us a gene’s view of the world. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene-centered_view_of_evolution)


Gather up your microbial multitude and together read this book, for truly “Thou art not thyself”.


Enquire at your local library. Check if this important title is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH


368 pages in Bodley Head

First published 2016

ISBN  978-1847923288


Ed Yong

Scroll to Top