Friday, August 16, 2013

An Epidemic of Absence by Moises Velasquez-Manoff

An Epidemic of Absence suggests, even by its title, that something is missing and that it has been for quite some time.  The central premise of the book is that human beings are superorganisms.  Not that we're special but that there is more to us than just us.  At a cellular level our bodies are made up more of things that aren't human than things that are and in our evolutionary history that was even more the case.  For most of human history we were exposed every day to parasites and bacteria and microbes (oh my [I couldn't resist]). The general thinking for the last 200 years has been that this exposure was harmful.  The very idea of having parasites can give people chills and, in reality, any of the listed "threats" can cause problems.  But how did we last as a species for so long if we were constantly bombarded by these invaders?  And if we're still here shouldn't the invaders be gone?  Somebody should have lost the war, right?

In his book, Moises Velasquez-Manoff presents reams of evidence that humanity fought these "old friends" to a stalemate.  That we learned to live with them and they learned to not harm us too much.  So, for the most part, we lived in peace for centuries, co-evolving and coming almost to rely on each other.  Our immune systems came to expect this onslaught so they learned to attack but also when to hold off.  The problem arises when you suddenly take away the parasites, bacteria, and microbes, as the Western world largely did after the Industrial Revolution.  Quite suddenly, hay fever emerged.  Auto-immune conditions began appearing.  After decades we now have the allergy epidemic, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, even autism has been linked in some studies to auto-immune conditions. Velasquez-Manoff presents the case compellingly and cautiously (he, himself, suffers from asthma and alopecia) through mention of years of scientific research and plenty of engrossing anectodal stories, even including a chapter on people who are intentionally infecting themselves with parasites to treat their conditions, which he did while writing the book.  Overall, it's a fascinating look at what is an emerging branch of medicine and I could spend an hour relating some of the interesting stories in its pages but instead I'll encourage you to read it even if you just skip to the parts about what in the world is making you sneeze this summer.

For more information on this topic you can read Bugs, Bowels, and Behavior available soon from your Virginia Beach Public Library.

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