Book Review: I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes is science journalist Ed Yong’s deep dive into the world of microbes. By examining diverse scientific studies under the umbrella of microbiology – from studies of animals that literally do not survive without microbial symbionts, to the (widely accepted) theory that our own Eukaryotic organelles evolved from bacteria – Yong illustrates how microbes are interwoven into every facet of life as we know it.

The book: I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
Genre: Science nonfiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Note: I read I Contain Multitudes as an audiobook, which likely played a major role in some of my opinions of it.

When I read science nonfiction, I want to learn and be filled with a sense of wonder and amazement: I Contain Multitudes achieved both of those things. Even though I do microbiology research, I didn’t know that most animals can’t survive without microbes, or that the human body hosts tons of non-pathogenic viruses, or even that the majority of viruses are non-pathogenic. Throughout this book, I found myself marveling at the specific things that microbes can be responsible for (like triggering deadly auto-immune responses in organisms across the tree of life), as well as their involvement in virtually every ecological niche on Earth.

While the book was successful in conveying the importance of microbes, however, some of the specific studies that Yong cites felt dryly written to me. I found it hard to keep track of acronyms and hyper-specific jargon, and to wrap my head around certain ecological interactions. I read I Contain Multitudes less than a month ago, and I’ve already forgotten several examples from the book because I couldn’t fully grasp them to begin with.

I also felt like I Contain Multitudes could have been made shorter by omitting a few of the scientific studies. While all the microbes that Yong covers are interesting in some way, it’s not clear that every study was strictly necessary for the book. At times, the book felt less like a cohesive story about microbes, and more like a collection of examples of microbes that do cool things.

Something that Yong handled very well was addressing the nuanced nature of scientific research. I appreciate that Yong steered away from oversimplified or misleading scientific claims, and that he called out mainstream news companies that do oversimplify or sensationalize microbiology research. I also like that when Yong presented controversial studies, he addressed the limitations and critiques of those studies. I respect and appreciate that Yong showed the nuance and complexity of scientific research – even though it sometimes came at a cost to my own understanding.

Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from I Contain Multitudes. While I found some of the science to be inaccessible and some examples unnecessary, I thought that the book clearly and excellently communicated the abundance and importance of microbes. And I also have to point out again that some of my negative takes on this book are very likely the result of trying to read science nonfiction as an audiobook!

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: I Contain Multitudes”

  1. This is a fascinating topic — from the little I’ve read about it, it almost seems like we’re mostly here to provide containers and carriers for the gazillions of life forms in our guts. But if you had trouble with some of the passages in this book, maybe I need the Cliff notes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah, providing containers for the gazillions of life forms in our guts – I love that! I might have struggled less if I’d read a physical copy of the book where I could re-read sentences as needed – audiobook doesn’t seem to lend well to science non-fiction.

      Like

  2. I tried reading a book about books not too long ago, and it was so steeped in PhD lit theory blah blah blah that I couldn’t follow along. It also didn’t help that the writer’s style was obtuse.

    “I appreciate that Yong steered away from oversimplified or misleading scientific claims, and that he called out mainstream news companies that do oversimplify or sensationalize microbiology research.” — this line here reminded me of an interview I heard on NPR with the author of Lab Girl. She said she purposefully described some things in a less specific way because her audience isn’t other scientists. She noted that some scientists and science enthusiasts would write to her to let her know she was wrong about something she’d done intentionally for the sake of audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point, and Lab Girl was an amazing book! I suspect Yong was afraid of losing some of the scientific nuance and misleading his audience — but now I’m wondering if he could have still simplified some chapters. The book was still interesting, but definitely no Lab Girl.

      Liked by 1 person

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