by George F. Will
“Worrying,” wrote Lewis Thomas, “is the most natural and spontaneous of all human functions.” Thomas — physician, philosopher, essayist, administrator (dean of the Yale and New York University medical schools, head of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) — thought we worry too much about our health, as though a human being is “a teetering, fallible contraption, always needing watching and patching, always on the verge of flapping to pieces.”
So at this worrisome moment, fill your idle hands with Bill Bryson’s 2019 book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants.” It will fill your mind with reasons for believing that you are not flimsy, even though “we are just a collection of inert components.” Including seven billion billion billion (7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) atoms, not one of which cares a fig about you. In the time it took to read this far into this sentence, your busy body manufactured 1 million red blood cells that will surge through you every 50 seconds — 150,000 times (a hundred or so miles) before, in about four months, they die and are replaced for the greater good, meaning: for you.
Bryson says it is estimated that every day between one and five of your cells turns cancerous and your immune system kills them: “A couple of dozen 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.” What he calls “three billion years of evolutionary tweaks” have taught your body some neat tricks.
Viruses, Bryson says, “bide their time.” A previously unknown one, found in Siberia in 2014 after having been confined in permafrost for 30,000 years, was injected into an amoeba and “sprang into action with the lustiness of youth.” To stave off death from the coronavirus, we diligently scrub our largest organ, our skin, the surface of which, the epidermis, is . . . dead. Bryson says “all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers,” shedding a million dead flakes an hour.
Just as well, considering that every square centimeter of your skin contains about 100,000 microbes, and about 200 species of microbes inhabit your skin. Some of the many trillions of living things that call your body home were studied in North Carolina State University’s Belly Button Biodiversity Project, which swabbed the belly buttons of 60 randomly selected Americans and found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 of which were previously unknown to science.
The three spongy pounds of mostly water, plus fat and protein, called the brain exist in darkness, yet it tells us everything we know about the world that it has never seen. “Just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all, your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in thirty years.” A grain-of-sand-sized bit of cortex “could hold two thousand terabytes of information,” enough to store every movie, or 1.2 billion copies of Bryson’s book. Small wonder this 2 percent of body weight uses 20 percent of our energy.
The energy expended by the 200 million steps you will take in your lifetime comes from improved modern nutrition that explains why puberty, which began at 16 or 17 five centuries ago, now generally begins at 11. Food, of which Americans consume unhealthy amounts (nearly 25 percent more calories than in 1970, when they already were not svelte), makes this nation simultaneously overfed and nutritionally deficient. Millennials scarf down avocado toast, oblivious of the fact that one avocado has, Bryson says, “five times as much saturated fat as a small bag of potato chips.” He adds: “The amount of vegetables eaten by the average American between 2000 and 2010 dropped by thirty pounds,” which is not alarming because America’s most popular vegetable “by a very wide margin is the French fry.”
The aforementioned brain does not always generate prudent choices, but it did rid the world of the most devastating disease, smallpox, which, Bryson reminds us, “infected nearly everyone who was exposed to it and killed about 30 percent of victims” — about half a billion in the 20th century. This is one of many reasons “if you are a seventy-year old man in America today, you have only a 2 percent chance of dying in the next year. In 1940, that probability was reached at age fifty-six.”
Globally, the approximately 160,000 people who will die today picked a good time to live. And it is highly probable that the ratio of human worrying about health, to actually worrisome conditions, will continue to enlarge.