This article titled “The Beautiful Cure by Daniel M Davis review – how our immune system has shaped world history” was written by Adam Rutherford, for The Guardian on Wednesday 31st January 2018 16.30 Asia/Kolkata
Nature wants to destroy you. volution has been driven by aggressive forces in which organisms will enact their livelihood at the expense of yours. Any top 10 list of the greatest killers in human history will not include war or famine, or guns or drugs. Of the voracious beasts that might feed off your flesh, lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) wouldn’t even scrape into the top 20. It is the smallest things in the living world that have had the biggest impact on humankind: malaria, plague, Spanish flu, cholera, tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and smallpox. These diseases are all caused by entities unseen until modern history. From smallest to largest, Aids, smallpox and flu are triggered by viruses, which are tiny compared with the bacteria that cause cholera, plague and tuberculosis, which themselves are dwarfed by the single celled Plasmodium organisms that give us malaria – probably the single most lethal agent in our history.
These instruments of death have in effect directed the development of one of the most underappreciated parts of human biology: our immune system. Daniel Davis’s terrific book attempts to redress this understandable oversight. There’s no gentle way of saying this: immunology is hard. Among the many ways we scientifically scrutinise ourselves, it doesn’t have the visceral and artistic merit of anatomy, the mysteries of the mind of psychology or the scientific sex appeal of genetics. The study of the immune system is complex, intricate meticulous and fiddly. A couple of years of immunology at university was painful enough, and as a grown-up science writer and broadcaster, I confess that I have quietly avoided immunity-related research as much as is polite.
But a good writer can make any subject thrilling. Davis is a very good writer, and my historical animosity – possibly fear – of engaging with immunology was swept away by his assured, unpretentious style. He is and a consummate storyteller. He considers how we understand our bodies’ natural and learned defences against every attack. There are fundamental questions here: how does the body determine self, and what is not? We ingest things all the time that are non-self, such as food, but how does the body know what is good for you and what will kill you? These are mysteries that he describes as being, or having been, solved by the Sherlockian methodologies of science.
The cover and subtitle make it look like a self-help book, with an element of health guru to it. Don’t be put off – it is nothing of the sort. Or perhaps this is very deliberate, and those drawn to the mind and body shelves in bookshops might actually be exposed to some proper science writing instead. Davis bounces back and forth between the old and new. We learn about a female prisoner exchanging the death penalty for life behind bars by agreeing to have smallpox pus extracts wiped up her nose. At a brisk pace, we are taken through stories of bitter enmities and Nobel prizes strewn in among the technical cellular and molecular insights of the modern era, a world in which Davis is active. And we hear of what is yet to come, with immunotherapies, a real field that attracts hype, internet billionaires and popstar funders. Davis doesn’t shy away from hard science, with B cells and T cells, and Natural Killer cells and macrophages and Toll-like receptors. Yet his is also a culturally literate description of how science is done, by people trying to push egos out of the way to answer fundamental questions.
Do not underestimate the importance of immunology. This field relates to you personally, as well as in the less solipsistic sweep of history. There’s so much bunkum in popular discourse about boosting your immune system, and its relationship to diet and lifestyle, which Davis tackles head on. The best chapter concerns what we really know about how stress affects the body’s ability to respond to attack (measurably and negatively), and how tai chi or laughter interact with our immunity. Answer: we don’t really know, because most of the studies have been not very good.
Just the other week, a dazzling study hoiked out DNA from the teeth of some centuries-dead Aztecs, and revealed the probable cause of their deaths, and 15 million others in the 16th century. They found a Salmonella species that causes enteric fever, which indigenous Meso-Americans had never been exposed to until Europeans invaded their lands. Their immune system had not learned to fight that vicious killer. And so culture and history have been shaped by immunology, just as they have been by the plagues that have been endemic in Eurasia since Justinian’s in 541-2AD.
Conversely, eradicating smallpox should be regarded as one of humankind’s greatest achievements. A disease that killed inestimable millions over thousands of years was declared extinct in 1980, following the deployment of the most effective medical treatment we have ever known: vaccines. Twenty years ago, the current anti-vaccination movement began with the publication by shamed former doctor Andrew Wakefield of a mendacious study that linked vaccines with autism. There is a real threat that with climate change, cadavers bearing otherwise vanquished pathogens will thaw from the permafrost. We should all pay more attention to understanding the barricades that evolution has provided us with, that we have learned to train, because this war is endless. The Beautiful Cure is a worthy guide.
Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is published by W&N.
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