10% Human: How Microbes Your Body’s Microbes Hold The Key to Health and Happiness

I picked this book 10% Human: How Microbes Your Body’s Microbes Hold The Key to Health and Happiness by Alanna Collen a science writer with a master’s degree in biology and a PhD in evolutionary biology, up on a shelf by chance in the Hong Kong airport during a long wait for my flight back to Manila. I was suppose to buy another book (I think it was “What Makes Us Human”) but on browsing a few pages of this book I immediately knew I could not let this book leave my hands. Don’t be turned off by the clickbait-like sounding title, I initially was too before I went beyond the cover, it’s full of the latest scientific research. It will fill your mind with ideas that may sound unconventional at first, but may be the start of the next major advances in medicine.

The book is entitled 10% Human since the author points out that for every 1 human cell in our bodies there are 9 other cells of other organisms on our body, mostly in the microorganisms in one’s gut. And while there is much understanding of how the human body and its cells work, there is not much understanding on the other 9 cells. Some of the concepts she discussed in this book are absolutely groundbreaking, such as the link between obesity and antibiotics, and the links autism and antibiotics. While these ideas are not yet mainstream, she presents the facts and very latest research, which is hard to refute.

It makes further sense to think that our gut microbiota are so beneficial to us since they have been evolving with us long before we were humans (maybe even before we were mammals, or even amphibians). This reminds me of the Selfish Gene by Dawkins, and  in the context of this book, it makes perfect sense.

Doctors Prescribe Antibiotics Way Too Often, Unintentionally Harming Us

In this book the author makes arguments against the the indiscriminate and unnecessary way today’s doctors prescribe antibiotics. In most cases, antibiotics are not necessary. As we know, cold, fevers and flus are viral, and antibiotics in most cases will not do anything in most cases to help. In fact, the the antibiotics will do more harm than good because it will kill off species in your gut, including beneficial ones. I felt good reading this, as for most of my life I steered away from taking antibiotics, as my mother advised me this same thing.

Obesity and Antibiotics

The links she raised between gut microbiota and obesity are extremely interesting. The author tells us that one of the reasons for this ‘obesity epidemic’ is not just the fat, sugar and an overall excess of calories, but the use of antibiotics that has . While this shatters some of the most fundamental ideas on what is causing this obesity epidemic, the facts speak for themselves. After all, agriculturists have been using antibiotics to fatten our livestock for decades (without precisely knowing why). It makes sense that antibiotics make us fat too.

It is comforting also to know, the author notes, that is not merely man’s own sloth and greed paired with the abundance of cheap and accessible calories that has made him so fat, but the unstudied effects of antibiotics on weight.

Autism and Antibiotics

I very highly recommend also reading the book for its discussion on the links of autism and antibiotics. This part itself is invaluable information which any parent should read. Apparently many cases of autism are caused when toxins that leak from the gut because of an imbalance in the gut microbiota because of antibiotics.  The precise mechanisms of this are not fully understood by science (at the time of writing of this book) but the links are strong and clear. If I hadn’t read this book, I’d think this would be scientific mumbo-jumbo. But I have learned to admire the times when I change my minds despite my feelings when presented y facts.

What is lacking in modern man’s diet?

This book also taught me something about diet. The problem with most modern people for the health of their microbiota is that their diet just lacks fiber, and this fiber is best supplied by green leafy vegetables, beans and whole grain. That sounds like a perfect complement on other ideas on how to diet properly.

What is a fecal transplant?

There is much talk in the book about the benefits of fecal transplants, a treatment that recently is starting to be accepted because of its proven benefits. A fecal transplant is when you get the poop of someone who has a healthy gut microbiota, usually someone who has had little or no exposure to antibiotics, put it in a fancy blender and shoot that blended poop into the gut of someone who is sick and has a lot less strains of the good bacteria. This introduced poop, which by the way is mostly bacteria in weight, would help populate your gut with beneficial strains of bacteria which it are lacking. It seems that the measure of health of your gut microbiota is how many species of bacteria there are in in. While some groups like American Indians or Malawi  in Africa would have around 1,600 and 1,400 species of bacteria living in their gut, the average American would have around 1,200 species.

One thing I suspect reading the book though is that at least for some parts she used may ghost writers since there are a some parts where the phrases are oddly repeated or sound a bit mechanical, a bit away from what I perceive to be the author’s voice. There are times when Wikipedia-ish facts on a topic are just rattled off, much like how it would sound if you paid someone to help finish part of the book, and they just culled of the facts from webpage rather than spoke with natural flow. This of course is a guess. And in no way do I think this detracts from the immense value you can get from reading this book.

You can check out a lot more reviews of this book on Amazon here.

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The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal

How different is man from our closest ancestors? How  much do we have in common? Is man really no more than hairless primate that has learned to walk on two legs? Or have we evolved some more peculiar innate traits that distinguish us from the apes?

Further questions beckon. Why did such a great imbalance of wealth and power in human societies come about, with much of it centered in Eurasia? Will man destroy itself in the end?

These questions are squarely tackled by the book The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond.

This is an easy to read book that brings together a wide range of disciples, such as genetics, anthropology, evolutionary biology. It also covers both our evolutionary past, our current behaviors and situations, and our future as a species. Covering such a wide range of topics, it’s written with a conversational tone that makes a pleasure to read.

The title The Third Chimpanzee refers to fact that if we base it on genetic similarities it would be more appropriate to classify ourselves as a  third species of Chimpanzee, the other two being the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. There is only a 1.6% difference between chimps and human, in contrast, chimps and gorillas differ by 2.3%. Thus the chimp’s closest relatives are not other apes with which they are categorized, but humans.

The Common Chimpanzee
The Common Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)

In the first part. he author takes time comparing and contrasting ourselves with other chimps and other primates and seeing ourselves in the same lens a zoologist would study an animal.

The author places a lot of emphasis in the development of language as a catalyst for the meteoric progress of humankind. He also takes the readers on a fascinating discussion relating human sexuality, mate selection and reproduction to our lives as primates or our evolutionary past.

In the last part of the book he delves into the ability of human to destroy ourselves with nuclear warfare or induce a catastrophic collapse of civilization with irreversible environmental degradation.

The book you’ll buy will be updated versions which contain latest studies on genetics and other insights which were not available when the book was written in 1991.

Bonobos (Pan paniscus)
Bonobos or “Pygmy Chimpanzees” (Pan paniscus)

The books is divided into these different parts: the chimpanzee’s closest relatives (part one), sexual selection (parts two and three), world conquest (part four) and environmental impact and extinction. The other books Jared Diamond wrote seem correspond to books he wrote in the future. Why is Sex Fun? An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997) stems from the first three parts of his book. The part of his book on world conquest contains a lot of what he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning  Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies (1997). His book  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) naturally corresponds to the last part of the book.

Even though the other books Jared Diamond wrote after The Third Chimpanzee can be seen expansions of some his ideas in this book, I’d still buy this book mainly for his examination on humans in the eyes of a zoologist and its focus on examining man as a third species of chimp, and the great wit and pleasure you would get from reading it.
A link to the latest edition of the book on Amazon can found here.

There is one more book which Jared Diamond wrote entitled The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012).

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

The book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world, because its growing scars of environmental damage.  In his book he discusses how  environmental degradation is the underlying causes of social and political collapse of society, and uses both modern and historical examples.

He starts the book close to home in Bitterroot, Montana. There he talks about the mounting environmental pressures that have been plaguing the area. From there, he examines examples from the past: the Mayan Civilization, the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, and the different island-societies in the South Pacific.

He also includes the example of Rwanda as an example of what modern societal collapse can look like. I particularly found value in this example because it was a splash of cold water to wake me to realization that what seems to be a racial or political conflict in the truth is a mask for a conflict over resources. The example of Rwanda gives a real face to the more abstract term of societal collapse.

One of the parts of the book which I found critical were the fates of the different societies on the islands of the South Pacific. As he explains, because we cannot make scientific experiments on the collapse of societies, one good place to look at are the islands of South Pacific, as their societies closest examples of case studies in the rise and fall of a societies, and microcosm of what can happen in the world.

In examining the different societies in the pacific, he includes the example of Tikopia, a small island in the southwest Pacific, as an example of a society that managed sustainable its resources. One the other end of the spectrum, he discusses in detail the famous example of Easter Island.

The famous Moai of Easter Island
The famous Moai of Easter Island

The story of Easter Island, know for its giant statues of human heads or moai, is one that personally fascinates me, having read accounts of it as young boy. Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world. It’s original Polynesian colonists who arrived in 900AD (there are earlier dates proposed of the arrivals of humans in Easter island, but Diamond suggest this to be the more accurate date), found an abundant island, but as the population grew and irreparably degraded the island’s natural resources, war, famine and cannibalism gripped the island. In 1722 when the first Europeans arrived on the island, the island’s population had dropped to 2,000 to 3,000 after a societal collapse from an estimated high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier.   The story of Easter island serves as a cautionary moral tale of what can happen to a society, and the planet as a whole, if we allow ourselves to blindly consume and damage our resources.

As one gets closer to the end of book one will get a dreadful feeling that it is there is no stopping the momentum mankind has built up to an eventual worldwide collapse of civilization. However, he ends the book giving a gleam of hope that if we find it within us to come together and heed the lessons from history, we can save ourselves from impending devastation.

The book end with a question. Will mankind like islanders of Easter island allow ourselves to go down a path that will plunge our world into war and famine? Or will we like the islanders of Tikopia make fundamental concerted changes in our society to protect our environment and ensure the long term survival of society?

You can choose to check out more info on this book on Amazon here.


Other books by Jared Diamond:

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991);
Why is Sex Fun? – An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997);
Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies (1997, awarded a Pulitzer Prize);
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012)

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society

I found out about this book from one of my older brothers. I think I was still in my early teen when he told me about this book and it was a couple of years after when I found a copy for myself. But I remember the moment I picked it up I was hooked.

The book cover features an artist’s depiction of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) and the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1466 – 1520) in 1519, where a handful of Spanish conquistadors and a small number of allies in one fell swoop massacred an Aztec decimated thousands of warriors and captured their leader. It was the start of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and the beginning of the end of the Aztec civilization. The book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World which I have a review of also recounts this historical incident.

What advantages did European civilizations have that gave  Hernán Cortés and this men such advantage that with a small number of adventurers topple and some allies the greatest empire in the Americas at the time. Did the Europeans have a natural physical and mental superiority that gave them natural advantages over the Aztecs? Why is it in the last century Europeans and those of descended from them had such great hegemony over technology, wealth and power? Why was it that throughout almost the entire history of civilization, Eurasian people led the world?

In the start of the book’s prologue, he recounts talking to a politician from Papua New Guinea who asks him why Europeans were so ahead of other civilizations, like the civilizations that rose of Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It does get you thinking. Were they any less smarter, or less industrious?

In his fascinating book, Jared Diamond argues that it was not by any innate superiority in intelligence or physical prowess that made Eurasia progress far ahead, but it was from advantages in geography that accumulated and compounded since the start of civilazation. I put the advantages Eurasian civilization had into three main broad categories that make up the title of his book.

Guns: Warfare was a constant in the Europe because geography weas conducive to allow cities and kingdoms to grow around each other and compete. Military advancements were important with many possibly belligerent immediate neighbors. Because competition was fierce, those who were practical in their methods quickly succeeded and conquered those who were not.

Germs: Though a lot of emphasis is placed on military conflict and the guns and swords of conquerors that put indigenous people to death, germs played a major role if not a bigger role in conquest.

Girl afflicted with Small Pox (Bangladesh, 1973)
Girl afflicted with Small Pox (Bangladesh, 1973)

First are the “bad” germs that hard people – Small Pox, Flu, Colds and other viruses and microscopic killers. Because European society had for much longer lived in densely-populated cities and were able to host to many infectious disease. Over time, their populations grew resistance to these diseases. Diseases were much easier to pass from one person to another in cities in places with a high-population density, and survivors of these disease or those more resistant to them were able to produce more offspring. In short, diseases which were simple colds to Europeans, were deadly killers to the American Indians. Virulence is another topic I like reading about by the way.

While it is impossible to give an accurate gauge on how many native North and South American natives were killed by disease during the Spanish colonisation, it is sure that a great majority of them died. A figure as high as 95% is attributed to disease, and possibly this may not be far from the truth. The Spaniards fought not only with their sharp steel lances and swords but the deadly viruses that were exhaled with their every breath, massacring whole populations even before they got to them.

I was quite reminded by the movie War of the Worlds wherein the initially successful invasion of aliens exterminating man failed because they could not cope with the viruses that man already had resistance to.

Also, there are the “good” germs or organisms which allow civilizations to progress, or the plants and animals which we domesticate. Here I learned about the “Anna Karenina principle” (after the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s book). There are a number qualities needed to make a good marriage, and just a lack of one of them will cause the marriage to fail. This principle states that there are a number of qualities that make an animal domesticable, but it just the lack of one will cause it to fail. A domesticable animal has to be sufficiently docile, can live in packs, does not bolt when startled, gregarious, willing to breed in captivity and have a social dominance hierarchy – few animal have all these characteristics.

The five top animals for example – the cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig are all of Eurasian origin. While there were lots of similar mammal in other continents, animal like zebras, kangaroos and bison, they were not domesticable.

Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the greater availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. Eurasian grains were richer in protein, easier to sow, and easier to store than American maize or tropical fruit.

Also, because of the East to West axis of the Eurasian continent, and it’s position in the right zone where agriculture does well, crops which were useful were quickly spread and exchanged between different societies, making food much more abundant.

Steel: Steel here represents technological advances. Due to surpluses of food that allowed people in Eurasia to live in cities and have more technical specialists, they were able to technologically advance much faster. Steel of course in itself is a great technological advantage that allowed modern weaponry, construction and other advances. One particular advantage discussed was the technology for fast, long distance transport which paved the way for Imperialism.

There are lots of other excellent review of the book here on Amazon. I feel I have not done this book justice just with my review. As of my last check, July 2016, the book is still number 1 in Geography. For a book written in 1997, it means not only was it groundbreaking, but masterfully written.

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Other books by Jared Diamond:

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (1991);
Why is Sex Fun? – An Evolution of Human Sexuality (1997);
Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005);
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies (2012)



Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

How did the languages we come to speak to day evolve? Where did they come from? Why have some languages flourish, while countless other vanished with out a trace and thousands more are at the brink of extinction?

I came across a description of this book in one of the HTLAL language forums, a website for language learning enthusiasts I like hanging out in. When the I read it I asked my wife to buy it that very day (she does the shopping between us two). I usually mull over buying a book I might like for weeks or even months (unless I’m in a physical book store and something catches my eye) but this was exception. ‘I’ve been wanting to read a book just like this’ I told her.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World tells the story of the spread of the major languages in the world in recorded history. In he books he traces the rise and fall of civilizations and the languages that accompany them, such as Arabic, Latin, Sanskrit and Chinese. The author makes it clear that the scope of the book is confined to history meaning having a source in written records. The author talks about factors that have made languages of civilizations successful, and that have left languages to stay only in historical records.

The copious amount of foot notes are however distracting to read. I suggest anyone wanting to read the book primarily for pleasure not to race to the bottom of the page to check out a footnote, but only if the footnoted term is particularly interesting to you.

The book opens with the story of the meeting of the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) and the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1466 – 1520), which at once reminded me of Jared Diamond’s well-known book Guns, Germs and Steel, and provides first-hand accounts from both sides (particularly the translation difficulties). I am particular interested in this historical incident having read a biography of Hernán Cortés when I was a kid.

The Phoenician alphabet used in inscriptions older than around 1050 BC is the oldest verified alphabet and the mother of all alphabets used in the world
The Phoenician alphabet used in inscriptions older than around 1050 BC is the oldest verified alphabet and the mother of all alphabets used in the world

One fact which thrilled the language geek in me was the revelation that all alphabets in the world stemmed from the Phoenician alphabet.

There are lots of extremely interesting stories nestled in the book, like how Dominican missionaries had to learn native languages over using Spanish.

The book ends with a prediction on the top twenty world’s major languages for the next 50 years.

There’s a lot of more very detailed reviews of the book on its Amazon page here. Some of the reviews here I could even call synopses.

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The Language Instinct

Do babies really have an innate ability to absorb language? Is language learned from blank slate or do we have a blueprint of language in our brains? Can adults learn just as well as children? These are some common questions people have about language.

As a foreign language learning enthusiast myself, and a parent trying to arm my baby daughter with the foreign language skills she can use in the future. These questions weighed very heavily in my mind.

But this book provides pure enlightenment.

My love affair with foreign language and a language learning “instinct” children started with watching this short clip many years ago about the work of Dr. Patricia Kuhl when I was in college:

This video inspires and raises many questions. The Language Instinct answers many of these questions.

How many languages can my child learn? Can I as an adult learn the same way a child learns?

In a nutshell it says that humans have an language blueprint inherited from our evolutionary past, and just as we suspect, language is built around this blueprint during a crucial window of time as as child grows.

The very first part of the book is rather academic in nature and it may be a bit off-putting for non-linguists who just want to wade through academic discussions. But it will all fit into place as you push through this part.

An crucial part of the book for me was where he takes the reader on the journey  how language is acquired by children, stage by stage. It is as if he shows you how the characteristics of a language fill up this blueprint of language which all children have.

Pinker provides lots of counter examples in the book by giving examples that test his theories, such as the case of a child of abusive parents who we deprived of any meaningful exposure to language, or hearing children of deaf parents who watch a lot of TV, and other interesting case studies.

It also explains why it feels better for us to say “billy, bow, beep” rather than “beep, bow, billy”. It has to do with the amount mental effort it takes to create the sound.

This book also enlightened me about sign language. It turns out that the same or a similar kind of instinctive blueprint for language is used by children who learn sign language.

It’s absolutely fascinating.

You can check out a lot more reviews of this book on Amazon here.

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The Selfish Gene

No book has fundamentally changed the way I see biological life more than The Self Gene by Richard Dawkins. Since I am an avid consumer of non-fiction books, I usually lean towards more recently published books, but this book first published in 1976 is book I recommend to all people interested in evolution and genetics.

In a nutshell he says that life exists because of genes ability to replicate themselves. When the book came out, he was branded as an  atheist, but his arguments are solid.  Some reported becoming despondent and suicidal. But his scientific logic cannot be refuted.

In the book the author expounds on the term “selfish gene”  to espouse a gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the views that focus on organisms and groups.  It follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense it makes for them to behave selflessly towards each other, to ensure the continuity of common genes. This part of the book seems to crush those with lofty ideas on humanitarian aid.

Example of a popular meme
Example of a popular meme

Another thing that I discovered reading the book is that the author invented, yes invented, the word “meme”. This was a surprise to me since I always thought that the word meme was haphazardly coined by a millenial clicking on 9gag pictures of Jackie Chan. Apparently, it was not a millenial but an  Oxford-educated, ground-breaking academic who thought of the word, and put a lot of sophisticated thought into coining it from an Ancient Greek root word as well. He shortened word the mimeme meaning imitated thing to sound similar to the word “gene”. He argues memes, like genes are to biological life, are units for carrying of cultural transmissions.

I later found out that the book is often cited for introducing the word “meme” but it actually is only occupies a small part of the book (if I remember it right a chapter or part of a chapter), almost as an afterthought. Otherwise, the book stays on topic examining a gene-centered view of evolution.

Though I’ve come across articles on it before, he also very lucidly explains the origin of sex in organisms. And he also explains why organism developed at all. He even explains how life started in the first place. What book that explains the origin of life and sex cannot be interesting, aye?

There recently has been a 30-year anniversary edition of the 1976 published book, pictured above, which features a new cover. Though it was published so long ago, after reading it, I understand why the book has persisted, and why it can still revolutionize the views of someone who picks up book more than four decades later.

Too bad they came out with a new cover for the new edition though. I kinda’ liked the cover art of the 1978 edition as pictured below.

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Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

This booked sparked my interest in Evolutionary Psychology, which remains one the favorite topics to this day. In it the authors explain several aspects of human behavior, especially those that are self-destructive or has a negative impact on ourselves. One can expect that through evolution – survival of the fittest – man would have developed traits that are beneficial to survival and producing more offspring. But why is it that many of our most basic behaviors are bad for us and cause us to overtime produce less offspring?

The authors anchor much of their writings on the Savanna Principle, a term coined by one of the authors Satoshi Kanawaza. Savanna Principle in a nutshell is idea that the human brain on a subconscious level has a hard time comprehending and dealing with situations that did not exist in the savanna, the environment which we evolved in for millions of years. Humans evolved in an environment that was harsh, dangerous, and resources were scarce. Meanwhile, most of us live in cities where it is relatively safe, prosperous and food is easily accessible. And, it was only in the last couple of centuries when this reversal occurred, a mere blink of the evolutionary eye. The authors uses this disparity between the environment we evolved in and modern society to explain a host of societal difficulties.

Or, put in another way: When examining human behavior, it is helpful to examine it in a lens of how it benefited our hominid ancestors in the savanna.

For example, our ancestors who craved for foods rich in salt, sugar and fat and exerted efforts to obtain them lived longer and were healthier than those who didn’t. In the savanna, salt, sugar and fat were very hard nutrients to come by, and it was only by hard work or good fortune that you could come upon them. Meanwhile, for many of us it takes us five minutes to go online or on the phone to order a pizza that can give you enough calories to sustain you for a couple of days. Thus, in modern society the abundance of salt, sugar and fat-laden foods leads to preventable diseases like, such as obesity and heart disease.

One aspect of human behavior the authors cover that sticks to mind is their explanation of the addictive quality of television, particularly soap operas. Humans didn’t evolve with TV’s in the savanna, so on a subconscious level, the mind has a hard time distinguishing characters we see on TV and real life characters. Has it ever struck you how closely we identify with our favorite characters in the movies or TV series we watch? Did you ever wonder why we developed such a strong emotion connection with them? Did you cheer for Jon Snow when he was declared King of the North, and did it fill you with glee when the sadistic  Lord Ramsay Bolton was being beaten to within an inch of his life by Jon Snow? (It’s a Game of Thrones reference for those who don’t watch the series.)

The book ends with the humbling salvo that not everything can be explained by Evolutionary Psychology, and that there are aspects of human behavior that even scientists who think about Evolutionary Psychology all day cannot give a fool-proof answer. For example, why do we love our parents?

You can read more about the book and other reviews on Amazon here.

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