Monday, July 12, 2010

Jesse Reviews "Parasite Rex"

        Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix? If so I'm sure you remember that antagonistic Agent Smith, the computer program with an ego. In one of his many memorable lines he delivers a little monologue about his take on Homo sapiens:
“I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.”

        The line is a rather philosophical look at the role humanity plays in the world. A hardboiled comment on the path we've taken. It's hard to think about the truth behind that statement without becoming a bit ashamed. At first we were convinced we were created separate from the animals. Then science told us that we were more alike those animals than we ever thought possible. Now we might be even lower lifeforms? Mere parasites sapping the life from our hosts? But luckily for us Agent Smith and other would-be philosophers haven't studied enough biology and clearly don't understand the importance of parasites. Actually most of us don't understand the importance of parasites and yet they are a crucial player in the game of life (of course I mean life on earth, but my childhood would have certainly been a lot more enjoyable if that statement held true for the Milton Bradley board game as well).
        I've just finished Carl Zimmer's book Parasite Rex. Reading this book is just like driving by a car accident: it is wholly unsettling and yet powerfully fascinating. All the things we learned in biology class, from the food chain to the intricate dance between predator and prey, were missing a huge link in the chain. As it turns out parasites have a bigger role in ecology than I could have ever imagined.
“Discovering parasites at work in ecosystems can feel a bit like watching in terror as a bank robbery unfolds and then looking across the street and seeing a movie crew with its cameras and boom mikes. Birds are being guided to their meals, and fish are choosing their coral polyps, thanks to the advertisements of flukes [a type of parasite]. Uncovering these effects is hard work, and only a few examples have been documented. But they're enough to suggest that parasites can cast some of the hoariest notions of ecology into doubt” (pg 110).

        The books starts out with the entrance of parasites into the world of science and leads into what they are, what they do, and how they do it. It slowly pulls back and encompasses a bigger picture. Not only are ideas of how parasites came to be discussed, but how parasites have affected the evolution of their hosts as well.
        It is all horrifying at first, I'll admit. Learning what kinds of parasites are out there and what they're capable of is a little bit frightening. Okay, it's a lot a bit frightening. But you quickly begin to realize that parasites play a huge role in the world. A role that is often overlooked. Zimmer's greatest accomplishment with this book is being able to avoid the trap of settling for shock and awe. He could have easily just written a book of bizarre and disgusting anecdotes detailing the more gruesome exploits of parasites. However, he instead manages to endear them to you with a graceful subtlety. Before you know it you've moved on from abject revulsion and moved on to distanced amazement.
        Maybe Agent Smith was right. Maybe human beings are just another type of parasite. If that is the case, I think I'm okay with that. And to be able to come to that conclusion after starting off disgusted and horrified of parasites is a testament to the book. The author says it best himself:
“There's no shame in being a parasite. We join a venerable guild that has been on this planet since its infancy and has become the most successful form of life on the planet. But we are clumsy in the parasitic way of life. Parasites can alter their host with great precision and change them for particular purposes: to take them back to their ancestral home in a stream, to move on to their adulthood inside a tern. But they are expert at causing only the harm that's necessary, because evolution has taught them that pointless harm will ultimately harm themselves. If we want to succeed as parasites, we need to learn from the masters” (pg 245)


  1. Well said, Mr. Heiman. I'm curious now about just what parasitic behavior Zimmer discussed in his book...I guess I'll have to read it.

  2. What kind of parasitic behavior? Injecting eggs into another creature's body, or chemically castrating them, or infesting their red blood cells, or eating their tongue and taking its place, or just growing 60ft long and swimming around in their intestines. You know. The usual.

  3. Bleh...I think I just lost my dinner :P