For three centuries bacteria have been considered to be alien and awe inspiring, even by sophisticated professors and dedicated students. Most of us still think that these tiny living beings are primarily germs and pathogens. They are often named by the symptoms they (sometimes) cause: the syphilitic spirochete, the plague bacterium, the cholera vibrio and Legionella. In this book, Dr Sorin Sonea and his late colleague Dr Maurice Panisset, have begun to set the record straight. These organisms are not only our own ancestors but also are the basis of our life-support system. They supply our atmospheric gases, they cleanse our water supply, and, in general, they ensure us a livable environment.

Lyn Margulis, Professor of Biology,
Boston University;
from her Foreword to A New Bacteriology (1980)

All our lives we have been taught that germs are bad, that they are out to harm us. So we bathe daily using plenty of soap, wash our hands constantly and would never think of eating a food morsel picked up from the floor. We give the food morsel instead to the dog, which quickly gulps it down, hoping we will drop some more. But dogs, generally, stay in better health than people; some of the most fastidious people get sick quite often. Maybe there are more important things than germs and viruses to be concerned about; maybe we have the wrong idea about germs.

The principles of human survival are simple enough but because it seems to be human nature to suspect anything simple, we have managed to weave so many complicated theories about human disease, human nutrition and the unique attraction humans have for germs and viruses that we cannot see the forest for the trees. Physiologically, humans are not unique at all, and but for the lifestyle errors they have themselves invented they would have no more reason to fear germs than a scruffy dog gnawing at a dirty old bone.

To understand better the natural relationship between germs and viruses and other forms of life, we must examine the fundamental principles that govern all forms of life on Earth. The first principle is that of symbiosis or coexistence, which states that all forms of life are one way or another dependent on each other, together forming what is known as the"web of life".

Of all forms of life on Earth, the vast majority are too small to be seen with the naked eye, inhabiting every minute space in the soil, water and atmosphere and on and within all larger creatures, and it was from such lowly forms of life that the higher forms evolved and upon which today the higher forms depend completely for their continued existence.

To believe in the evolution of the species doesn't mean you have to be an atheist, nor does it mean you have to accept word for word Charles Darwin's theory. That the higher species evolved from more primitive ones had been evident and speculated upon for centuries, and before Charles was born, his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, respected doctor, inventor, poet and writer, himself had written a thesis on the subject.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was new only in that it presented a plausible explanation of the evolutionary process based on observed phenomena and not too much on imagination. Darwin did not invent the theory of evolution, he invented a theory of how it worked. Darwin believed, at least when his theory was published, that the changes in a species from one generation to another which led eventually to a new species altogether were entirely accidental, random changes, and that such random changes only became permanent if they conveyed an advantage giving a better chance of survival. He called this process "natural selection", and from this concept arose the expression "survival of the fittest".

Darwin's theory evolved in his mind from his observations as a naturalist, and his concept of natural selection is not in dispute. The part of his theory which has always been disputed is the belief that the evolutionary changes are random, occurring entirely by chance.

When the complexity of a single living cell is contemplated, it is inconceivable that random chance events in the wide open spaces--or for that matter, intelligently directed events in a modern laboratory--could ever have produced such an exquisitely complex thing. And even given a complete living cell to start with, and unlimited time, the number of random mutations needed to produce even something as lowly as an earthworm is so infinitely great that for them to occur with the necessary precision and exact sequence by sheer accident is beyond the remotest possibility. A humorous cartoon the author has never forgotten seeing in a color magazine years ago depicts an artist painting a portrait. Disgusted that he cannot get it right, the artist throws all his different colored paints into a bucket and hurls it all at the canvas. Then, looking back over his shoulder as he packs up his things to leave, he is suddenly transfixed. His eyes pop out. There smiling at him from the canvas, arms folded, in all her perfection, is--the Mona Lisa!

If then the supposition is correct that evolution could not occur by chance alone, it must be that there exists in Nature some guiding force which, even if working by trial and error, nevertheless works with a purpose. This was the conclusion arrived at by Darwin himself in his later years when speculating on the intricate structure of the human eye. Louis Pasteur was not the only scientist to have second thoughts on an unproven theory. Thus we talk about "the wisdom of Nature" and of "Nature's grand design", or simply acknowledge God Almighty. Who was it* said: "IfGod did not exist it would be necessary for man to invent him."? Thus it becomes clear that an understanding of evolution does not deny the existence of God; on the contrary, it confirms it.

*Voltaire.