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Customer reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars

on 12 September 2017
Very informative.
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on 30 October 2017
Brilliant read, cannot recommend it enough!!
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on 2 September 2008
Some other customer reviewers treat this book as if it was a horror novel by Stephen King, and both the title and the back matter certainly give that impression. "Imagine a world where the parasites control the minds of their hosts, sending them to their destruction...where parasites steer the course of evolution, where the majority of species are parasites. WELCOME TO EARTH".

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...
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on 15 May 2015
Eeeeeuw!! Fascinating but by halfway I'd had enough.....
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on 14 November 2004
Once considered a "degenerate" form of life, parasites are being seen as important indicators of how evolution has progressed over 4 billion years. Zimmer credits them with being the driving force for biological diversity. He substantiates this claim with a sweeping, evocative survey of what is known today about parasites. That, he regretfully concedes, is little enough. What is known is that many early conceptions about parasites needed to be thrown aside as more information about this highly adaptable and widely variable range of organisms emerges.
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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on 16 October 2000
I bought this book on the basis of a favourable review in New Scientist. The book is written in a very accessible style, making it very readable by non-scientists and scientists alike. The story writting ability of Carl Zimmer is a welcome change from some of the supposed popular science authors. Many of the storys are deliciously gruesome, but also educational, as Carl explores the complex relationship of parasite and host from many angles. The role of parasitism in shaping eveolution is considered as are the physiological and behavioural consequences of a parastic relationship. My one criticism is that Carl does not differentiate between parasites (keep their hosts alive) and parasitoids (intentionally kill their hosts), a subtle distinction that I felt would have helped in his explanations. This is a minor issue and certainly does not detract from an excellent book. I would thoroughly recommend this bokk at anyone who is even vaguely interested in parasites and modern diseases.
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on 8 August 2004
If you're interested in life in general and natural wonders in particular, you should find this book fascinating, with your senses of revulsion and respect stimulated in more or less equal measure. The author has travelled the world, collecting data for this book, meeting interesting parasitologists and discussing some of the weird and fantastically well-adapted parasites they study. Carl Zimmer seems to be on a mission to give us a fresh, new way of looking at parasites - they've had a bad press and he's out to redress the balance. Parasite Rex should open your eyes to the part parasites play in maintaining a balance in the world's ecosystems; how vital they are to the well-being of life on our planet; how some can be used as a kind of 'canary in a mine' to measure the health of an environment and so on. In addition to that, the parasites covered in this book are just incredibly interesting. There were several occasions when I wondered if I should really believe what the author was telling me - the sort of account you might expect to find in some science fiction tale - so I checked other sources and sure enough, some parasites are so outlandishly bizarre that their story is hard to believe.
Zimmer explains how parasites came to be reviled; he describes a selection of species, their life cycles and the diseases they cause - sometimes using actual cases; he explains how they get into and manipulate their hosts (this is where you'll read some of the most astounding accounts that could out-weird any science fiction story); how their hosts fight back; how parasites have driven evolution by forcing their hosts into an 'arms race'; and how we should, in some ways, try to be more like them (the more benign ones at least). Some parasites are deadly of course but many cause no more harm than they have to, because wiping out their hosts would not help their survival. Zimmer compares parasites that use their hosts in this considerate way to humans using this planet in a considerate, non-destructive way. He says there's no shame in being a parasite. If we treated our host (the planet) with the care and consideration that some parasites treat their hosts, our planet's ecosystems would not be in the mess they are today. You have to hand it to the author, that's a new and intriguing way of looking at parasites.
I found his ideas very persuasive and I recommend this book. If you like Parasite Rex, you'll also enjoy Mark Ridley's "The Red Queen" and Arno Karlen's "The Biography of a Germ", both of which I highly recommend.
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VINE VOICEon 28 May 2010
In Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer introduces us to the wonderful world of the parasite. Long overlooked as "degenerate" organisms, the author shows how the life cycles of parasites are finely honed to the lives of their hosts and intermediate organisms, how these organisms avoid the attentions of their hosts immune systems and how they can even manipulate the behaviour of their hosts to their own ends.

The author resists the temptation to go for the "yuck factor" and writes about the subject matter in a thoughtful and considered manner. He introduces the reader to some of the parasitologists currently working in this particular discipline and shows how their work is revealing not only the complexity of the life cycles of many parasites but also how they may be vital for the well being of many ecosystems, how they have helped drive the evolution of their hosts and even how they may be, in some circumstances, beneficial to the immune systems of their hosts.

Overall, this is an excellent insight into this much overlooked area of biology that is really well written and very accessible. I studied parasitology briefly at university and had forgotten what a truly fascinating subject it is - thanks to Carl Zimmer for the reminder!
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on 31 December 2012
my 12 year old son and i were listening to an episode on this american life when we heard zimmer discuss parasites. my son is a typical (?) 12 year old who loves yucky things and he was enthralled by the plight of the parasite. i ordered this book for christmas thinking we'd read it together as i assumed it would be a bit out of his league. in fact i started to read it before he did, i found it very interesting and well written and since he's gotten his hands on it, he can't and won't put it down. it's pretty cool to see him reading it and coming in to me every 10 minutes with another amazing parasite fact. he's very motivated to read it alone and it is definitely accessible for those kids who read well and understand. in hindsight, i should have bought two copies as i am waiting, not very patiently to continue reading it myself and he is nowhere near ready to hand it over. a really wonderful glimpse into parasites and what makes them more interesting than gross.
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on 25 May 2010
This is one of my favourite popsci books of all time. Zimmer is an excellent writer and doesn't fail with this one. Buy it or borrow it and read it! Love the pix as well :)
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