Saturday, April 08, 2006

Is cleanliness next to godliness?

A recent story on CNN's web site debated the wisdom of keeping kids hyperclean? Might not early exposure to a few germs be good for a child's long-term health?

My wife always thought so. She let our infants have the run of the floor. Everything went in their mouths. Were they healthier for it? I don't know, but my wife sure thinks so.

Kids love dirt. For a child, the best days are those that leave the thickest ring around the tub. Dirty clothes are badges of bliss. A little dirt never hurt anyone, insisted my tolerant spouse.

A taste for dirt may be in our genes, a sort of evolutionary boost to our immune systems. There's even a scientific word for eating dirt: geophagy. Geophagy has been practiced for centuries, maybe forever. Plato observed pregnant women eating dirt. Boys in the medieval ages where whipped to break them of the habit. In the 17th century, Spanish noblewomen ate so much dirt the authorities passed laws making the practice illegal. Geophagy has been recorded in every part of the world and in every class of people. Apes do it too, which suggests that the habit might be deeply embedded in our primate nature. All those millions of years that our soapless ancestors sat in the dirt eating unwashed food with unwashed hands may have left their genetic mark. It may be worth noting that "human" and "humus" come from the same ancient Indo-european root: dhghem, meaning "earth."

But don't tell that to the super-fastidious parents of today. Are their bubble-wrapped kids healthier? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: We came from the soil and to the soil we shall return. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but a child's layer of backyard grime may be the next best thing to innoculation.