Ecosystems are complicated. They involve myriad organisms existing and interacting within a particular place at a particular time. These are dynamic habitats, with populations that are constantly shifting.
Even broadly similar habitats can have vastly different populations, with different species playing similar roles, or the same species playing very different roles. For example, my stomach and your stomach are both ecosystems. And while both are host to a motley assemblage of bacteria and viruses, my batch of microbial denizens is distinct from yours.
The same holds true for all of the microbial ecosystems on or in my body. Or your body. Or an ant’s body. Almost every multicellular organism serves as home to microbial life (I can’t think of an exception, but one may be out there).
Once you start to think about these symbiotic microbial ecosystems on a global scale – that every human, starfish, ant, tick or starling on the planet houses a distinct collection of microbial life – the sheer scope of the complexity involved becomes mind boggling.
So, what brave soul would be tempted to craft an orderly narrative about this overwhelming complexity? Enter Ed Yong, author of the forthcoming I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (coming out in the U.S. Aug. 9 from the Ecco imprint of HarperCollins).
To learn more about what drew him to this subject, and how he imposed order on the chaos, I asked Yong a lot of questions. Here are his answers.
Science Communication Breakdown: Back in 2013, I asked you whether you’d ever consider writing a book and, if so, what it would be about. At the time, your response was, and I quote: “Don’t know. Always thought I would. Now I wonder where I’d find the time. It would be about HEY LOOK OVER THERE… <dustclouds, car door slams, tires screech>.” Were you already thinking about the book that would become I Contain Multitudes?
Ed Yong: I really wasn’t! I specifically told many people that I would never write a book. In January 2014, Will Francis, who is now my agent, emailed me asking if I had any book ideas yet. I replied, saying: “Still no plans on a book, I’m afraid. I’m just not seeing an idea that I want to explore at that length.” Three weeks later, I sent him a two-page document that was basically my book proposal in microcosm. It really did pop into my head, very suddenly and fully-formed.
There were many converging reasons for that. For one, many years ago, I nurtured a plan to write a book on horizontal gene transfer, which would frankly have been a total disaster at the time. Then I learned that David Quammen was (kind of) doing the same. Obviously, he’d do it better, and man, do I want to read that book. But I was also a little sad to learn that my pet idea had been yanked away. So I asked myself: is there a topic that, if I learned David Quammen had snagged for his next project, I would have to strangle him over? I love David! He’s the sweetest guy! I don’t want to strangle him!
SCB: You’ve written hundreds of stories, for your Not Exactly Rocket Science blog at National Geographic, as a freelancer, and most recently as a staff reporter for The Atlantic. And the topics you write about are wildly diverse, from prehistoric ecology to caterpillars. What made you want to write this book? Was there a particular moment when you were working on an article and thought, “Oh crap, this isn’t an article – it’s a book”?
Yong: Not so much. In some senses, the idea should have been obvious: I’d been reporting on microbiomes for years. But I’d always thought that the science of the human microbiome was still in its infancy, and that any book on the same would be necessarily speculative and oversold. It was only when I thought about weaving the human stories with those from all over the animal kingdom that I felt I had something meaty enough to sustain a book. It wouldn’t be a health book, or a self-help one. It would be a natural history book. And no one had really done that—no one had written a popular science book that spanned the entire animal kingdom and united all these stories that I knew existed, about hyenas and squid and tube worms and mealybugs and corals and people. (I also wrote to David explaining the idea and asking how much it overlapped with his and he was extraordinarily gracious, helpful, and supportive.)
SCB: How did you go from “I have an idea for a book” to “someone is going to pay me to write a book”? Did you find an agent, pitch an idea directly to a publisher, what?
Yong: The agent was easy. I’d wanted to work with Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit for ages; he’s a sharp and wonderful guy, and came highly recommended. Will and I crafted the proposal iteratively; two pages became 2,000 words, which became 4,000 words. Six weeks after I sent the first email to Will, the proposal went out to publishers. One day later, Bodley Head (RandomHouse) in the UK made a pre-emptive bid to take it off the table. Two weeks later, the US rights went to auction and Ecco (HarperCollins) beat out three others.
SCB: Did that process change or refine your idea for the book in any way?
Yong: Will definitely helped to shape the idea and to pull out nuggets that would make it sellable. But the book I envisaged was the book I ended up writing. The proposal has a ten-chapter plan in it, of which six are actually in the book and four are there in the same place.
SCB: The book covers an astonishing variety of research on microbial life, dealing with everything from coral reefs to mental health in humans. How do you get your arms around a subject that broad? I mean, from a writing standpoint, how did you begin to organize all of this information into a coherent, linear narrative that pulled readers along?
Yong: I knew from the start that the book wasn’t going to be a single narrative that follows one particular character or story; that’s almost antithetical to the theme. Equally, it couldn’t just be a loose collection of essays. So I ended up dividing it into ten chapters that would each reveal a different aspect of the relationships between animals and microbes. One, for example, would look at how microbes sculpt animal bodies. Another would be about the evolutionary opportunities they have opened. Others would be about how those partnerships can be disrupted, or manipulated. The big challenge was then to find the stories, the little mini-narratives that best exemplified those themes, and then weave them together into fluid compelling chapters. Which meant a big dining table, a lot of index cards, and a lot of time. I spent six months on reporting and structuring before I wrote a single word.
SCB: Because there are so many fascinating fields of research in this area, and so many interesting people conducting that research, how did you decide which stories to focus on in the book? How did you decide which stories to examine in detail, which would receive only a mention, and which would have to be left out?
Yong: I knew that I wanted every chapter to have a mix of detailed sections where I zoom in on specific protagonists whose work I’d follow in great detail, and broader ones where I zoom out and explain bigger concepts. For the former, I gravitated towards scientists who had not only done important work, but had really focused on particular organisms for a long time, like Nancy Moran and aphids, Margaret McFall-Ngai and squids, Forest Rohwer and corals, or Scott O’Neill and mosquitoes.
SCB: Were there any stories or anecdotes that you particularly loved, but that – for whatever reason – you ended up leaving out? If so, could you tell me a little bit about one of them?
Yong: There are nematode worms that kill insects by vomiting toxic bacteria into their bodies. It’s an example of an animal using a bacterium as a weapon to kill another animal. It’s also a good example of the dual nature of symbiosis—the same bacterium is an ally to one animal (the worm) and death for another (the insect). Also: the bacteria glow for reasons that are still unclear. In the American Civil War, they’d get into the wounds of soldiers, and the toxins they produced acted as disinfectants. The troops called this “the angel’s glow.”
SCB: Is the version of the book that readers will see substantially different from your first draft? Did you have to make significant cuts, or revisit portions of the narrative to clarify things or flesh them out?
Yong: A couple of chapters have moved around, and the final text is actually a few thousand words longer. But beyond that, the finished product is closer to the original draft than I expected. That being said, I had two great editors from my UK and US publishers respectively, whose suggestions really helped to tighten the prose and smooth the seams. They compared notes on broad points but otherwise worked independently; it was really interesting to contrast both sets of edits and find that roughly half of them were the same. Often, they’d highlight the same paragraph and say: Fix this.
SCB: Did the process of writing a book inform the way you write for other media? For example, did it change the way you approach writing features or other stories?
Yong: Not really.
SCB: Given that research into microbial ecosystems and symbiotic relationships is now a particularly active field, did you give yourself any guidelines on when to cut yourself off? For example, I’m guessing that a number of new papers were coming out that were relevant to each chapter, even as you finished writing them. Did you find yourself going back and updating portions of the book as you worked?
Yong: Yeah, I was making updates till about March. Scientists have ignored my pleas to stop publishing new papers until the book comes out—the nerve of them! But seriously, those final changes were pretty minor and although papers have emerged since that I would love to have included, I don’t think their absence makes too much difference. The research I’ve covered spans decades or even centuries, so I’m confident that the main themes will stand the test of time, even though the field may change in some of the details. Some of the work I’ve mentioned in the book is unpublished and to my knowledge, none of what I’ve covered has been retracted yet!
SCB: As I noted earlier, you write a steady stream of stories for your Not Exactly Rocket Science blog and for The Atlantic (for those two outlets, I counted eight stories between June 8 and June 15). How did you make time for your blogging and reporting activities, while also doing the researching, interviewing and writing necessary for the book? Was there a lot of cross-pollination, where research and interviews contributed to the book but also led to news stories and blog posts?
Yong: I scaled back on pretty much everything except blogging and a few features while I was writing the book, between September 2014 and August 2015. Some of those blog posts and features did indeed contribute to book material, and the book has certainly helped my reporting since. It’s one thing to cover a field by writing about new papers in a piecemeal way, and another to spend over a year truly understanding it—its history and players, controversies and uncertainties.
SCB: I wanted to ask how you ended up at The Atlantic. You’d been freelancing for a while, as well as maintaining your blog, what made you want to take a full-time staff position?
Yong: It’s funny. Last June, Ginny Hughes, who was an ardent freelancer like me until she became Buzzfeed’s science tsar, asked me if I would ever take a staff job. And I think I said that I would absolutely not do that. Freelancing forever. And then out of the blue, The Atlantic called me about a position a few weeks later, and I bit and bit hard. They are an incredible place to work for: the people, the freedom, the intellectual ambience. They talk a lot about how they prize both “force of intellect and generosity of spirit”—a phrase that, I think, beautifully captures what it’s like to work there.
SCB: Now that you’ve written a book, do you think you’ll want to do it again?
Yong: Sure. I loved writing this one. Before I did it, I heard so. Much. Moaning. About how nightmarish it is to write a book. So when I got the book deals, I made two resolutions: I would file on deadline, and I would shut the fuck up and enjoy it. And I’m two for two: I filed three weeks early, and I had fun. So, yeah, I’d totally do it again, but it depends on finding the right idea. It would probably be about HEY LOOK OVER THERE… <dustclouds, car door slams, tires screech>.