Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures Library Binding – 15 Oct 2008
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Paul Hoffman author of "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers" Carl Zimmer is one of the finest, most engaging science journalists today. He has demonstrated once again his ability to present scientific concepts in arresting, understandable prose. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The bizarre and ghoulishly fascinating world of parasites, revealed by the acclaimed author of Evolution. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
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In reality, Carl Zimmer's "Parasite Rex" is a perfectly serious, popular science book about parasites and their impact on evolution. Zimmer, and presumably the scientists he interviewed, believe that the majority of species are parasites, and that parasites might be the driving force of evolution. Apparently, this hasn't always been the scientific consensus. For a long time, parasites were seen as degenerate organisms, organisms that had "devolved" rather than evolved. This was connected to a misinterpretation of Darwinism as "progressive" evolution. Since parasites didn't seem "progressive", they were considered evolutionary dead ends. Sometimes, the political analogies were pretty transparent: parasites were a metaphor for human welfare cheats (and welfare states).
Today, scientists know that parasites aren't "degenerate". Quite the contrary. They are perfectly well adapted to their respective environments, and their life-cycles and behaviour are incredibly complex, which implies that they have been evolving for a very long time. "Parasite Rex" takes this reasoning one step further, arguing that co-evolution between parasites and their hosts has been a prime feature of all evolution, and that the parasites are the most dynamic part of that process. In effect, the course of evolution, perhaps even human evolution, is steered by...the parasites. They are the movers and shakers of planet Earth.
Zimmer also believes that many natural scientists haven't faced the implications of this yet. Many studies of population dynamics and animal behaviour are made without taking into consideration that parasites might affect the populations, and even their behaviour, in dramatic ways. Zimmer wants biologists to place parasitology, and parasite-host interaction, centre stage.
But the most disturbing aspect of the book is, of course, philosophical.
If evolution is a blind process steered by parasites, where on earth does that leave us?
Perhaps that's why some people think "Parasite Rex" is so scary...
While we may recoil at the term "parasite", Zimmer identifies but one villain in this book. Ray Lankester, a devoted Edwardian-era evolutionist, postulated that parasites were a "regressive" form of organism. He thought they shed evolutionary advantages as they simplified their bodies through their life cycles. Lankester thus set the tone for generations - biologists avoided studying parasites as offering no additional information revealing evolution's processes. Zimmer explains that since parasites are predators, it was thought they ought to follow the patterns of other predators - stalking prey like lions, or following scent gradients like sharks.
Instead, as more about them came to light, it was revealed how adaptive parasites are. Some, in fact, have developed the talent of making "prey" come to them. One fluke invades a snail early in its career. In an intermediate, but distinctive form, it then moves to an ant. Residing in the ant's brain, at some point it directs the ant to climb a grass stalk. There it waits for the grass, along with the ant and itself, to be eaten by a cow. The fluke cruises through the cow's stomach before taking up residence in the liver as adults, yet another body form. When the eggs are produced, they return to the intestinal tract to be later deposited on the ground, awaited by the snails. Looking at each phase, residing in a different host, you would be inclined to see it as a separate species.
This note is but one of the endless chorus of parasite adaptations Zimmer relates in this excellent book. He joins the refrain of older scientists lamenting the lack of upcoming researchers needed in parasite studies. Unlike the animals we see around us, most parasites have astonishingly varied body forms as they go through the phases of their life cycles. For years, this catalog of body plans was thought to display different species. Only recently has it been demonstrated that these creatures changed shape and function dramatically as they changed living environments. Identifying each stage, the invader's function there, the impact on the host and other elements requires long, patient and dedicated work.
Those of us in the urban world think we can keep parasites at a distance, flooding our farms and wetlands with chemicals to fend them off. This is false confidence, Zimmer reminds us. Parasites are the most adaptable forms of life on the planet. They are as likely to promote change as respond to it. Zimmer cites Robin Dunbar's thesis that grooming for parasites ultimately allowed humans to develop speech and language. He explains how our immune systems and parasites enter a modus vivendi that allows the parasite and host alike to survive. Recognising how that process evolved could lead to better coexistence through "taming" the invaders.
Coexistence with these minute creatures turns out to have many implications. It's now clear that the development of agriculture made human society vulnerable to invaders unknown on the savannah. Human bodies became less robust and mortality rates rose. How far back in time have they had influences on us and what are those? Zimmer suggests that some monkeys have developed "manners" in resource or mate competition. They scream and cavort, but don't scratch or bite rivals for fear of bloodworm infection. Others use particular leaves to clear digestive tracts of infestations. We hear of researchers seeking "genes for" schizophrenia, homosexuality, even "gods". Zimmer thinks we're looking in the wrong place. Instead, he urges, we should identify the "flukes for" these and other aspects of human behaviour and form. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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