Apparently some readers of Never Home Alone find it alarming. Reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post talk about the horror of finding out that we have bacteria and bugs not just all over our houses but even in our bodies. But I found the book reassuring. This may because I am one of those people who find the activity of house cleaning tiresome and unnecessary except for special occasions such as when trying to impress visitors. The project of getting one's house clean and free of anything alien has always seemed a lost cause, and mostly a waste of time. I embrace the idea that my place is clean enough. When around people who are constantly disinfecting and using antibacterial liquids, I wonder what drives their neurosis. The main message of Never Home Alone is reassuring for me. Rob Dunn argues that most bugs and bacteria are harmless or even good for us, and the goal of completely eradicating them is not just unachievable but in fact a terrible idea. We are better off with more biodiversity, living in harmony with the living beings around us. Trying to eradicate them all just means that the ones that are bad for us will evolve to become more resilient to our attacks and more dangerous for us.
Dunn is both an academic and a well-published popular science writer, whose 2017 Never Out of Season set out some of the problems of modern agribusiness. His writing is clear and engaging. He goes into both the history of science as microscopes enabled scientists to discover the tiny life forms that surround us, and also current science investigating what we have living in our houses and the effects of our trying to eliminate them. He covers many forms of life and many sorts of dangers we cause by our overreaction to perceived threats. Of course, some bugs are a genuine threat to us. I do have an ongoing battle with wasps who want to live in my house, and I occasionally resort to chemical solutions to eradicate them. There wasn't anything in Never Home Alone that persuaded me to just share my space with them.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.