A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 5, Chapter 20 : Life Itself (Small World) | Summary



In this chapter Bryson discusses the world of bacteria. He starts by making the point there are immense numbers on the planet—for instance, there are about one trillion on the body of a person in good health. Humans need them to survive, as they perform a number of important tasks in the human body, such as digesting food. They also supply most of the planet's breathable oxygen. They are extremely hardy and reproduce rapidly. Probably more of them exist beneath the soil and rock than do on the surface of Earth.

In the late 19th century German naturalist Ernst Haeckel suggested bacteria be placed in their own kingdom, but this idea was not embraced until the 1960s. In 1969 ecologist R. H. Whittaker proposed to divide life into five categories called kingdoms: Animalia (animals), Plantae (plans), Fungi (fungus and related organisms), Protista (single-celled eukaryotes, or organisms with a nucleus), and Monera (prokaryotes, or organisms without a nucleus, such as bacteria). Then, in 1976, university professor Carl Woese used genetic evidence to divide life into 23 main divisions, many of those divisions falling within microbial life. In 1998 Harvard zoologist Ernst Mayr critiqued Woese's divisions, arguing skewing the divisions of life toward bacteria created divisions that did not accurately represent the complexity of life. The five-kingdom system remains in place.

Bryson ends with a discussion of bacterial illnesses. While most bacteria are beneficial or neutral, some bacteria—about one in a thousand—can cause illness. A majority of the time, the symptoms of bacterial infections, such as fever, nasal congestion, and coughing, are the result of "what your body is trying to do to the organism." The symptoms help to spread the bacteria from one host to another. Unfortunately, bacteria can develop immunities to antibiotics rapidly, almost as fast as antibiotics are developed. Because of a lack of capital investment in research, "the pharmaceutical industry hasn't given us an entirely new antibiotic since the 1970s." Furthermore, overuse of antibiotics, especially in its use with farm animals, helps promote resistance to them. Bryson ends by saying while a potential eruption of the caldera at Yellowstone National Park or a meteorite impact could be devastating to human life, the potential for a global viral epidemic should especially concern governments.


Bryson transitions from a discussion of the rise of life to a discussion of bacteria and the reality there is an inconceivable number of bacteria alive in the world at any one time. He writes they are "amazingly prolific" and have been found "living in boiling mud pots and lakes of caustic soda." In short, despite being too small to see with the naked eye, bacteria make up a majority of the life on Earth, and Bryson makes clear they are thriving.

Bryson discusses how life is organized into kingdoms by focusing on the contrasting views of Woese and Mayr. Their argument was whether to further subdivide or to lump together different categories of bacteria within the tree of life. The discussion highlights the fact despite the new genetic advances in modern phylogenetic studies, controversies regarding how to categorize and organize animal and plant groups still occur because of conceptual differences. Within the scientific community, there will always be individuals who prefer to combine groups, called "lumpers," and those who prefer to divide groups, called "splitters."

Bryson describes not only how a majority of illnesses arise from bacterial infections, but also the issues associated with the overuse of antibiotics. The potential for a global viral epidemic is a topic that has also taken hold in the public imagination, spawning numerous nonfiction and fiction books on the topic. Bryson shows this potential is very real.

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