Mini book review: The Human Superorganism

“If we indiscriminately wage war on microbes, we wage war on ourselves,” says Cornell immunotoxicologist Rodney Dietert in his book, The Human Superorganism. That’s because, he argues, emerging knowledge about the microbiome means a human being can only be viewed as an inseparable tangle of human and microbial genes.

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The book is a battle cry: Dietert calls for medicine to go beyond its dogged focus on mammalian genes and physiology, and he details a list of predictions about the future of “superorganism” health care.

The book shines when Dietert describes the workings of the immune system with vivid metaphors. But he gets carried away when he boldly attributes the rise of non-communicable diseases–allergies, cancer, heart disease, obesity, and others–to six microbiome-disrupting factors, including shifts in diet and the overuse of antibiotics. In fact, those who have dug deep into the data know these connections between microbiome disruptors and specific diseases are still uncertain. Only in time will we know the real nature of these connections.

Dietert’s passion for the topic may have led him to assume too much; it seems he forgot that, in science, “I said it first” has no heft. Instead, dozens of scientists are toiling away in laboratories around the world, working with mice and newborns and fecal matter, to be able to say: “I showed it first”.

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