Bill Bryson: The Body

February 16, 2020

817GAJ7nY1L._AC_UY218_ML3_    Bill Bryson writes well, which is one of the reasons I have enjoyed most of his books. There is a fluent style to his prose, which manages to be highly informative, entertaining and occasionally humorous as well as highly readable. He knocks spots off the dull, mid-Atlantic ramblings of many contemporary peers.

This book is popular science: let’s not pretend anything else. But what works so well for me is his infectious sense of wonder as he makes the incredibly dry and scientific details – I’m no scientist – accessible and comprehensible to the non-expert. All this is fascinating and eminently forgettable, too, and I suppose this is an aspect of the popular science format. But the formula is good enough to make the reader pause and reflect many times.

Along with the sense of wonder comes a feeling of humility too: it had me going back to the creationists’ explanation for such marvellous complexity – God – briefly, until I jolted myself back to reality and acknowledged that time and evolution did the job… he had me laughing out loud when he commented that he didn’t imagine any fundamentalist woman in labour praising God for the absolutely marvellous job he’d done in making the birth canal the perfect size.

Bryson makes his way round all the components of the average human being, presenting us with a selective mixture of facts and how we came to learn them. He surveys current research and knowledge, as well as outlining the huge number of things which we still don’t know or understand about how the body functions, and can’t manage to do artificially in a laboratory.

I learned (and forgot) lots, but what struck me most was the importance of the discovery of cooking in the remote past of our early ancestors, allowing far more efficient use of calories, less time eating, and helping lead eventually to the larger brain which has allowed us to get where we are today – even if that isn’t a particularly wonderful place.

Bryson is quite shocking, too, when he considers modern medicine in terms of over-treatment of ailments, the profiteering of drug companies, and the awful record of our beloved NHS in terms of cancer treatments. There is a reminder for us all that medicine may have worked wonders in so many ways, but it is still very much not an exact science: it doesn’t have all the answers, even though so many of us think it does…

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