Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live
© 2018 Rob Dunn
They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky — – they’re your new roomates. Or rather, your old roommates. Turns out they’ve been around a while — hiding in your basement, chilling in the showerhead, taking in the baths in your hot water heater. You may pay the rent alone, but you’re surrounded by squatters! Rob Dunn introduces readers to the fauna of the average American home, from the smallest bacteria to the larger predators, and suggests that maybe they’re not as awful and parasitical as we think. Germophobes will read with horror of the bacteria all around them, and it takes a brave soul to endure an entire chapter on cockroaches (I read it with a scowl on my face), but Rob Dunn’s house tour has an important lesson at the heart of it, on the importance of biodiversity. Dunn, as ever, is a compelling author whose gifts at communicating science are supplemented with frequent splashes of humor.
The average American kid spends over 90% of their time indoors, and many adults aren’t far behind them. Considering how much time we spend inside, it’s astonishing how little we know about the creatures with live with. Not only are we effectively immersed in bacteria every day (especially in the shower), but we’ve unwittingly made our homes ideal places for all kinds of life to flourish – providing spaces with no predators, plenty of food, and their choice of climates. What’s more, many of the species living inside homes are as-yet unclassified by scientists, whether they’re bacteria or arthropods. Dunn writes of our houseguests not to horrify us, but to drive home the fact that we’re by nature immersed in a web of life, and our attempts to disconnect ourselves from it — by making ourselves or our homes completely sterile — will invariably backfire. When we engage in biocide to purge our bodies or fields of pathogens, we’re effectively egging on evolution. Roaches, for instance, who were previously targeted with glucose bait traps, developed a new population that recoiled from glucose, instead — and since that meant they were also revolted by the glucose-filled gifts used in mating, asexual reproduction was encouraged. With every new exchange of chemical warfare, the survivors — there are always survivors — get tougher and more virulent. What’s more, our constant attempts to make our environments completely sterile is undermining human health, as well: regular exposure to a wide variety of bacteria is essential for keeping our immune system tuned and ready for service, among other things. (This theme is also explored in Dunn’s The Wild Life of our Bodies.)
There are some interesting omissions from Never Home Alone; no mention of mice, for instance, but there’s so much else considered I’m hardly complaining. It was a joy to read Dunn again. Never Home Alone succeeds in inspiring and educating simultaneously. I’ll be sharing some highlights in a seperate post because of the sheer amount of them.