A pleasant, informative and largely uncontroversial book, Why Things Bite Back is an enjoyable, if somewhat light read. As much a set of anecdotes about "life out of balance" as a look at the irony of technological advances, Edward Tenner's book suffers from a slight confusion about its thesis and audience. The subtitle is accurate, but Why Things Bite Back can seem a little diffuse as it jumps back and forth between ironic, "revenge" effects of technology and the unintended outcomes that are characteristic of systems that have been disrupted. Most of the examples that Tenner uses are biological -- charting human struggles against pathogens, plants, insects, and even allergies and also discussing ergonomics and sports -- which perhaps contributes to the temptation to conflate rearranging or system-disruption effects with actual revenge effects. One hopes that the term "technology" and the book's cover (featuring an electric cord coiled and poised to strike, cobra-fashion) won't chase away readers interested in medicine and ecosystems.
A particular strength of Why Things Bite Back is its many anecdotes that show even simple technology causing more problems than it solves. This book is filled with stories of the growing resistance of pests and pathogens to chemicals designed to kill them -- true to the nature of evolving beasts -- and plants that simply won't die (like bindweed, whose roots falls apart with ease, spreading the plant yet further as hapless humans attempt to uproot it).
Tenner approaches his subject fairly lightly, but sometimes his arguments are so simple as to undermine themselves. His treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) deserves special attention in this context. Discussed with medical advances, PTSD receives astonishingly short shrift from Tenner. He states that despite many years of investigation, there has been no real ability to link the onset of PTSD in veterans to events that may be many years in the past, and he goes on to suggest that battlefield medicine's increasing ability to patch kids up and send them back out to the front -- especially well-developed in Vietnam -- probably contributed to PTSD. He then segues into a discussion about the way in which improved emergency care has had unintended effects in civilian life as well.
The psychologist may stop and stare at this page, which is remarkable chiefly for what is absent. Innovative, Vietnam-era training techniques are not discussed. The unusual youth of the soldiers the U.S. sent to Vietnam is not discussed. The unusual, isolating, non-unit-based troop rotation used in the Vietnam war is not discussed. Societal disapproval of the Vietnam war is not discussed. In fact, it is quite possible that in his comments, Tenner has brought up the single least important aspect of PTSD in Vietnam-era soldiers.
PTSD has been investigated and discussed extensively in the professional and popular arenas, whether the sufferers are veterans, rape victims or survivors of horrible accidents. A recent book from military historian and psychologist Lt. Col. David Grossman -- On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, reviewed in The Net Net June 14 -- offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of PTSD in veterans. This is the sad irony in this book of ironies: Had Tenner not been so apparently focused on medicine's ability to address one problem while leaving another to arise (unless this example is meant to suggest the sometimes outsize importance of seemingly minor details), he could easily have used some of the current thinking on PTSD to illustrate his larger thesis more effectively.
Although the factors that Grossman cites as predictive of the severity of PTSD are not necessarily "revenge" effects of military training, they certainly amply demonstrate unintended effects both of the science and technology brought to bear on making a better soldier and, again from Grossman's analysis, of the public disapproval of the war. That said, Why Things Bite Back is not a book that crawls out on any political limbs; in fact, some issues are brought up almost in order to dismiss their potential controversy. America's most divisive historical event of the past 50 years seems like a bad candidate for such treatment, making Tenner's choice all the more puzzling.
Tenner's discussions of the larger impact of medicine and technology offer a very interesting look at some of the binds that "advances" have placed us in. Our visions of progress and our priorities are challenged by modern technology's spectacular success with acute illness and injury -- and mixed results with increasingly prevalent chronic illnesses -- as well as by mobile communications devices that promise freedom while binding us more tightly to the office than ever. Why Things Bite Back is rich in color and fun to read, a tribute to its basic optimism in the face of its subject. Unfortunately, the lack of depth and complexity to its arguments makes it a diverting read rather than a thought-provoking one.