“All creatures of our God and King”
A review of
Never Home Alone:
From Microbes to Millipedes,
Camel Crickets, and Honeybees,
the Natural History of Where We Live
Hardback: Basic Books, 2018
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Reviewed by Scot F. Martin
How easy it is to go through our daily routines giving nary a thought to the abundance of life around us. You don’t live near any charismatic megafauna, you say? Perhaps…but are you aware of the vibrant biodiversity in your neighborhood, your backyard, and even the interior of your home? The songbirds and amphibians, the rodents and opossums, the riot of insect life all within your vision and hearing? What about the myriad creatures living inside with you? The ones you’d rather not think about?
As the title of ecologist Rob Dunn’s book Never Home Alone indicates we don’t have to go far to encounter wildlife even if it doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of what constitutes wildlife. “We began to study the life in homes in the way one might inventory a rain forest in Costa Rica or grassland in South Africa. When we did, we were in for a surprise. We expected to find hundreds of species; instead, we discovered—depending on just how we do the math—upward of two hundred thousand species.”
He cautions against the perceived need of many who might want to bleach and bomb their homes with poison as so many of the species living with us “are beneficial to us, necessary even.” In fact, the good species (or neutral, if I can call them that) outnumber the bad (in most cases) if we don’t seek to insert our clumsy and lethal technological hand.
Several kingdoms (of taxonomy) can be found in our homes as Dunn covers archaea (maybe you didn’t know this was a thing) to babies with bacteria, arthropods, and cats and dogs in between.
He catalogues the many unknowns in great detail starting with archaea, which used to be thought of as bacteria, but aren’t, they are the organisms thriving around hot springs and now found in our domestic water heaters.
Some readers may be horrified to learn about the colonies of microbes that settle in our showerheads, including those that can cause tuberculosis and Legionnaire’s disease. Lest you panic, there can also be found in the same shower spray a bacterium that boosts serotonin in humans.
When we think of our domestic water system, unless one resides in Flint, Michigan, one may be tempted to think the water is clean. However, “[w]hat clean has never meant,” writes Dunn, “and will never mean, is sterile.”
He continues, “… [E]ven after disinfection with biocides, the water leaving treatment plants is not sterile. Instead it is water in which the most susceptible species have been killed and the toughest species have survived, alongside the dead bodies of the susceptible species and the food those susceptible species were eating.”
Everyone’s “favorite” household pest, the German cockroach, gets its own chapter. In it we learn that we are the real problem with cockroaches. German cockroaches cannot live in the wild, where they thrive, of course, is with us. Through our efforts to eradicate them we have only eliminated potential predators and bred them to resist our chemical poisons. “The natural enemies of the pests in our homes are very often, whether you like it or not, spiders. If you kill the spiders in your home (and this is precisely what we do with many kinds of pesticide applications), you do so at your own expense.”
Overall, Never Home Alone is a fascinating read. The case for biodiversity, even the microbial diversity that feasts upon us, is urged in every chapter. Dunn presents the connection between schizophrenia in humans and our domestic cats, how the bacteria in the guts of camel crickets may help reduce industrial waste, and how the microbes on our hands contribute to the unique taste of individual batches of kimchi and bread. We are even treated to a biographical sketch of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology. Equally fascinating is Dunn’s reach, he recruits or is recruited by colleagues in Europe and here in the States and heavily involves the public in the studies (how else are you going to swab the inside of showerheads in “what is probably the largest ever study of the ecology of showers and showerheads”).
Dunn cares about the species he studies, and he even talks about the sublime found in the natural world, but to conflate Jesus’ and St. Paul’s words: “This one thing you lack—love.” Dunn lays out an excellent case for ecosystem services—that is, the benefits creation provides to humanity free of charge—things such as flood control and water filtration courtesy of wetlands or the medicinal resources that can be extracted from plants and animals. But this always seems to boil down to an argument of “since this forest provides $12.7 million dollars of value to the economy, we won’t raze it to create a golf course.” Dunn himself writes, “If we do it right, inviting biodiversity back into our lives simultaneously helps to conserve biodiversity and allows us to avail ourselves of more of its services.” I don’t fault Dunn for his lack of spiritual vision, that isn’t what his book is about, but the followers of Jesus need to have a richer, deeper vision.
Economic and utilitarian arguments have their place, but the Christian should recognize the bond that we share with all creation: namely that we are creatures who serve a loving God who appears to want a world filled with extravagant beauty and wonder. This wonder should lead us to the maker and lover of it all.
Sure, we should work to control pathogenic species, but at the heart of our existence lays “All creatures of our God and King” and who are we to eliminate them because we perceive them as “icky?”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com