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Bill Bryson has written a book about the human body. Perhaps he got the idea from his son, Dr David Bryson, a paediatric orthopaedic fellow at a Liverpool children’s hospital. Photo/Getty

In praise of (two) old white guys' books

Jenny Nicholls finds two balding boomers with much in common.

I’ve just spent 900 pages in the company of two “old white guys”: the Australian zoologist and explorer Tim Flannery, 63, and the American-English writer Bill Bryson, 67. They have each published a plump volume in time for Christmas, two fat, rich puddings of science – both, thanks to their consummate skill, easy to digest.

Bryson’s book describes “this warm wobble of flesh” – the human body, with its skin, heart, bones, guts, blood, brain and immune system; its diseases and its mortality – with the same breezy humour that made his science bestseller A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) such a classic.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Penguin Random House, $55), like all great popular science books, grasps the nettle of complexity without thrashing the reader to death with it. There’s the immune system, for instance, which I call mind-bogglingly complicated and he calls “big and kind of messy and all over the place”, with its antibodies, lymphocytes, cytokines, histamines, neutrophils, B-cells, T-cells, NK cells, macrophages, phagocytes, granulocytes, and yadda yadda pluripotent haematopoietic stem cells.

Bryson doesn’t pretend immunity is simpler than it is. But he wheedles us into the detailed stuff with a clever, memorable image. “Despite the intricacy at the molecular level, all parts of the immune system contribute to a single task: to identify anything that is in the body that shouldn’t be there and, if necessary, kill it,” he writes. “But... lots of things inside you are harmless or even beneficial, and it would be a waste of energy to kill them. So the immune system has to be a bit like security people at airports watching stuff on a conveyor belt, and only challenging those things that have nefarious intent.”

Bryson is good at metaphor. Autoimmune diseases “are grossly sexist”. (Women are twice as likely as men to get multiple sclerosis, 10 times more likely to get lupus, 50 times more likely to get a thyroid condition known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.) A red blood cell full of haemoglobin is a “shipping container” for transporting oxygen about the body. Within a cell, components are “bumping and jostling like so many dodgem cars”.

Related articles: The indefatigable explorer: Why Bill Bryson is still travelling the world | Scientist Tim Flannery time-travels to prehistoric Europe

This talent for explanation pales beside his genius for seeing the funny side – of locomotion, of Victorian operations, of sex, even of death:

“We are not the speediest of creatures, as anyone who has ever chased a dog or a cat or even an escaped hamster will know.”

“In Britain, Joseph Lister introduced the use of carbolic acid into operating theatres. He built a device that put out a mist of carbolic acid all around the operating table, which must have been pretty awful, particularly for anyone wearing spectacles.”

“Cloning gives you the same thing over and over. Sex gives you Einstein and Rembrandt – and a lot of dorks, too, of course.”

“Even [our normal body] temperature is pretty good at keeping microbes in check. Just look at how swiftly they swarm in and devour you when you die. That’s because your lifeless body falls to a delicious come-and-get-it temperature, like a pie left to cool on a windowsill.”

This pleasure in knowledge for its own sake, in the era of “wellness” and personalised everything, is almost subversive. Think of how much is contained within this one chirrupy paragraph:

“Five out of six smokers won’t get lung cancer. Most of the people who are prime candidates for heart attacks won’t get heart attacks. Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turns cancerous and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that. A couple of times a week, well over a thousand times a year, you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you. Overall, cancers are rare: most cells in the body replicate billions and billions of times without going wrong. Cancer may be a common death, but it is not a common event in life.”

Bryson’s bonhomie hides a formidable intellect and independence of thought. His crisp comments on public health outcomes (a couple of pages out of some 386) use the latest data to show how unfair health systems lead to unnecessary suffering. Anti-vaxxers and other quacks aren’t attacked quite as directly – though God knows, he must have been tempted. He backs up the science with chatty interviews with experts (like his son, a children’s bone specialist), sparing use of statistics, and a long bibliography.

His fondness for exposing The Great Assholes of science, and for resuscitating the reputations of forgotten toilers, is also endearing. Hence the caption, “Albert Schatz, who discovered that soil microbes would provide the world with an additional antibiotic to penicillin, overseen by his supervisor, Selman Waksman, who took all the credit.”

Writer and explorer Tim Flannery in 2006. Photo/Getty
Tim Flannery, like Bryson, loathes irrationality and injustice, and again makes his case with writerly skill. To say he knows his stuff is an understatement. His adventures in zoology, to take just one example, are legend.

“Tim Flannery is in the league of the all-time great explorers like Dr David Livingstone,” wrote David Attenborough, who should know. Flannery did much of this exploring as a zoologist, discovering more than 30 mammal species in the far-flung islands of Melanesia. A Solomon Islands greater monkey-faced bat is named after him (Pteralopex flannereryi), and also a genus of therapod dinosaur (Timimus).

Life: Selected Writings (Text, $48) is a collection of essays – from classic bestsellers such as The Future Eaters (1994) and The Eternal Frontier (2001) and from mags such as the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. There are 35 years’ worth here, and they couldn’t be more exciting if Indiana Jones himself had written them.

Sample quote: “We 20th-century biologists travelled through the vast island realm that was our field of research by whatever means were at hand – sometimes by air, at other times by ocean liner, inter-island ferry or dugout canoe. Then we would set about collecting, documenting and exploring a world of nature that in some cases had never before been entered by a biologist. And the excitement of setting up a mist-net and laying a trap-line on an island that had not yielded a single record of a mammal was just about the most exciting thing you could do.”

Flannery is famous for his books on continental-scale ecological histories, and the climate emergency, including The Weather Makers (2005), and Atmosphere of Hope (2015). His activism in Australia led to his role as Australia’s Climate Commissioner, when “the climate debate became so partisan that I needed security guards”.

Like Bryson, Flannery’s integrity is worn lightly, as much a part of him as a piercing gaze and a balding pate. Tree kangaroos get much more detail than he allows himself, even in a biographical passage. This is as revealing as it gets: “Those people I lived with in the heart of the jungle, with little more than a stone or a metal axe to forge a living, showed me the essence of humanity, for they took me into their clan and shared with me the most precious knowledge and resources. Living with them, under their guidance, I matured from adolescence to adulthood. It was an experience that shaped the rest of my life. My early life in my own society offered few opportunities for mentorship and guidance. My father left our family when I was 14 (he had his own problems).”

In 1999, in an essay about Australian exploration literature called “This Extraordinary Continent”, he notes, “There are precious few accounts by female explorers, but they are often luminous and fresh and different… but what are we to make of Mr Gosse, who wrote ‘I was compelled to return south… and on to a high hill which I named Ayers Rock’? Mr Gosse was the first European to lay eyes on the largest rock on the planet: Uluru, an epicentre of Aboriginal dreaming, a place almost hallucinogenic in its grandeur. Any account that could call such a place ‘a high hill’ finds no place [here].”

Flannery compares Gosse’s eyewateringly dull report with the “startling and unforgettable” accounts by Aboriginal explorers. “European explorers got to carry the ink, pens and journals, and you could easily get the impression that they were the most indispensable members of any expedition. Yet a careful reading of these accounts reveals that Aborigines were the real, albeit unacknowledged explorers of much of Australia. They generally carried the guns that fed and defended the expedition, they found the water, and [risking their lives] they made the peace [with tribes whose territories were breached].”

These two “old white men” have each gained much expertise in the navigation of science, in exploration, and in rejecting the old certainties they were raised with. In their own ways, they call out the mistakes and obliviousness of the past.

Vive le grey-beards!

Jenny Nicholls tweets at @jmnicholls

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.