About a year ago I was deep into deep time on the Plains, studying the charismatic megamammals that made a home where the bison now roam. Fascinating stuff, the Pleistocene on the prairie, and one beast that intrigued me was the pronghorn. A true native of North America, pronghorn thrived and survived. How? Well, you don’t get far into the pronghorn literature before you come upon the name of biologist John Byers. His explanation of pronghorn survival: they were fast.
Browsing the library’s New Arrivals shelves sometime later I found The Wild Life of Our Bodies, which included a chapter entitled “The pronghorn principle and what our guts flee.” It mentioned the work of Byers, so I picked it up. Written by a North Carolina professor named Rob Dunn, a scientist with a sense of humor, it takes the systems view of, well, me. And you. Says Dunn:
“There are more bacterial cells on you right now than there ever were bison on the Great Plains, more microbial cells, in fact, than human cells.”
In The Holistic Orchard, Michael Phillips reports on the recent finding that trees are sheathed in microbes. Turns out we are, too. We are but microbe mobile homes, and the more we look the more we find, entire invisible and dynamic ecosystems on us and in us.
Dunn often talks about the human microbiome as though it is a prairie; principles of health thus parallel those of grasssland ecology. His aforementioned “pronghorn principle” is this: pronghorn speed is a result of invisible predators, invisible because extinct—they lived in the Pleistocene. You can see where he’s headed: Just as the pronghorn’s prairie has drastically changed, so has our microbiome. This is why, suggests Dunn, allergy rates are skyrocketing, along with asthma, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, IBD, and MS. Regaining our health depends on ecosystem restoration, and that’s where things get interesting. Pronghorn coevolved with the American cheetah; our gut bacteria coevolved with worms—which, like the cheetah, aren’t there anymore.
To restore balance, he says, we need to bring back intestinal parasites.
Enter a brand-new book, An Epidemic of Absence, by Moises Velasquez-Manoff. Longer, more serious, rigorous, and often first-hand, Velasquez-Manoff takes the pronghorn principle and runs with it. In so doing, he expands upon the fascinating paradox of hygiene that harms—the widespread use of modern broad-spectrum antibiotics—and delves deep into theories of restoration ecology in the human gut. If you can stomach holistic, deep-time theories of inner ecosystem restoration, chew on these books a while. As Velasquez-Manoff points out, what you digest can literally change your mind—and hence the title of this review, from scientist Betty Diamond. - Jake Vail, Reference