Review: Vivien Horler
The Body – A guide for occupants, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)
Sometimes it may be better not to dwell on the inner workings of our bodies.
I mean, do you really want to know this: “Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turns cancerous …”
But Bill Bryson follows his statement with the good news: “… and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week … you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you.”
As you might expect from the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, this book is packed with facts, most of them interesting. There is, for example, the story of Vitamin D. It is vital to health, helping to build strong bones and teeth, boost the immune system, fight cancer and nourish the heart.
We get it two ways: through sunlight or our diet. But too much sunlight can cause skin cancer. Diet is also problematic: Bryson says to meet Vitamin D needs from food alone, we’d have to eat 15 eggs or about 3kg of cheese a day.
Skin colour helps with the safe absorbtion of sunlight, but the slow evolution of different skin tones only really worked when people stayed put. “Nowadays increased mobility means that lots of people end up in places where sun levels and skin tones don’t get along at all.”
All of this means that around 50% of people around the world are estimated to be Vitamin D deficient for at least part of the year, while in the northern hemisphere it might be up to 90%.
Bryson takes us through our bodies from the outside – skin and hair – to our microbes, the brain, the head, the heart and blood, our body chemistry, bones, walking upright and exercise, immunity, breathing, food and the gut, sleep, sex and procreation, disease and death.
Much of the information is based on trends in Europe and North America, presumably the people who will be buying the book. As a result he says of TB: “It is another disease that we have mostly forgotten…”, which is hardly true for us down at the southern tip of Africa.
But he reminds readers that in fact, with the conquest of smallpox, TB is now the deadliest disease on earth. Around one in three people on the planet carries the bacterium, and some boroughs of London have rates of infection “that nearly match” those of Nigeria or Brazil. And Bryson says with the increase of MDR and XDR strains, “it is entirely possible that we could one day … be facing an epidemic of TB that medicine cannot treat”.
Our bodies are miracles, but not without their problems. Bryson points out that we are the product of three billion years of evolution. “We would all be a lot better off if we could just start afresh and give ourselves bodies built for our … needs – to walk upright without wrecking our knees and backs, to swallow without the heightened risk of choking, to dispense babies as if from a vending machine. But we weren’t built for that.”
This is not one of Bryson’s funny books, and he does go in for quite a few meaningless comparisons, such as: if ocean viruses alone were laid end to end, they would stretch for 10million light years. Huh?
But it is written with his customary light touch and is full of interesting information that just calls out for a friend who will listen patiently as you read snippets out loud.
Review: Vivien Horler