Never Home Alone is a fascinating and thrillingly readable book, a report from what is still a relatively new frontier of science, one that could become ever more important as we reap the consequences of our misguided war on domestic biodiversity. Read this and you will look at your home – especially its grubbier corners – with new, wondering eyes.
In Never Home Alone, [Dunn] assembles an amiable and often fascinating miscellany of similar curiosities, forming a freewheeling survey of what might be termed domestic ecology. His aim, it seems, is not just to uncover the biological richness of the typical household, but to persuade us of its importance as a site of investigation... Perhaps the most persuasive argument to emerge from these essays is that such promising discoveries are not as unlikely as they appear. Organisms have wondrous abilities, Dunn points out, because they need them to survive in highly specific conditions. This means that ecologists, who puzzle out these accommodations for a living, have a unique head start in the race to find new marvels. But while we may well nod along to all this, it is surely Dunn’s scientific colleagues who need to be convinced... Still, Dunn does have some guidance to offer the rest of us, if hedged a little by scientific caution.
Writing with scholarly passion, Dunn samples dust from windowsills, human skin flakes from pillowcases, bacteria from belly buttons and armpits (men have more than women) and fungi in bricks buildings... Dunn’s message is clear, and it’s a powerful one, from which we can all benefit. Yes, of course hygiene in the obvious places, along with clean drinking water and so on, is essential. But please, open the door and welcome biodiversity in. Put the sprays away. Leave the spiders be.
One of Rob Dunn’s heroes is Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the ‘first microbiologist’ in history. When the 17th-century Dutchman trained his early microscope on a drop of water, he was in awe of what he saw: ‘So many thousands of living creatures . . . all huddling and moving, but each creature having its own motion’.
Dunn feels a similar sense of grandeur when he contemplates the extraordinary biodiversity his research has uncovered.
His achievement in this book is to convey this wonder to his readers.
Of those 200,000 species, there are many that could help us. It is no accident that some of the worst bacteria are found in the most sterilised places, hospitals, where they are constantly challenged by antibiotics. “This quickly gets rid of any bacteria that aren’t antibiotic resistant and rids the surviving bacteria of any competition.” As he puts it bluntly: “We’ve screwed up.”...
The good news, he concludes, is that these super-strains struggle where there is biodiversity. If we can find a way to restore what we’ve killed, all might be well. The bad news? There can’t be many people with Dunn’s almost obsessional level of excitement for dust, gunk and microbial poop. It is a good book about niche science, which deserves to be widely read.