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!