A biologist shows the influence of wild species on our well-being and world, and how, even in places like our bedrooms, where we have most completely cleansed ourselves of nature, nature still clings to us–it always will.

We evolved in a wilderness of parasites, mutualists, and pathogens. But we no longer see ourselves as being part of nature and the broader community of life. In the name of progress and clean living, we have scrubbed much of nature off of our bodies, and have tried to remove whole kinds of life–parasites, bacteria, mutualists, and predators–to allow ourselves to live free of wild danger. Nature, in this new world, is the landscape outside, a kind of living painting that is pleasant to contemplate but also nice to have escaped.



In a series of vivid portraits of determined–even obsessed–scientists, Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys Rob Dunn shows that we are not even close to knowing all life on earth. We are not close to naming it, studying it, not even close to knowing the basic kinds of organisms.

How much is left to know? If history is a lesson, there is more left to know than we have yet discovered. And yet, biologists and lay people alike have repeatedly through history claimed victory over life. A thousand years ago we thought we knew almost everything; a hundred years ago too. But even today we are unable to see what is beyond our immediate radar. Discoveries we can’t yet imagine still await. Dunn traces the history of human discovery from the establishment of classification in the 18th century to today’s attempts to first find, and then describe life in space. The narrative telescopes from a scientist’s attempt to find one single thing (a rare ant-emulating beetle species) to a scientist’s attempt to find everything (all the insects living in a section of the Smoky Mountains).