MONDAY, 14 NOVEMBER 2011
Zimmer certainly has a passion for his subject and you can’t help but share his fascination for these revolting and curious beasts, fondly named ‘nature’s criminals’. Parasites encounter many difficulties throughout their lives, primarily how to find, enter and survive inside their specific host. The parasitic Cotesia wasp has evolved a survival mechanism to evade its host’s immune system by inserting its own genes into the genome of its caterpillar host. Zimmer provides many examples of these adaption methods throughout Parasite Rex, just touching on the huge variety of parasitic organisms that exist. In my opinion, the prize for the most disgusting parasite goes to Tambura’s guinea worms, which can grow to two feet in length and escape it’s host by punching a blister through the leg and crawling out over the space of a few days.
We’ve shared a long and turbulent history with parasites, evolving together in a continual escalation, or ‘arms race’. This mean we have a lot to thank parasites for - not only have parasites helped shape the human body, they are also thought to have shaped human nature. One theory suggests that parasites are responsible for the fact that we, and many other animals, have sex. They have structured the ecosystem that we depend on and sculpted the genes of their hosts, ours included. Zimmer even goes as far to say that we could learn valuable lessons from these evolutionary ancient creatures on how to manage the earth, the common host for us all.
A background in parasitology, or even biology, is by no means needed to keep up with the content of this book. Zimmer manages to weave just enough easily understandable science into each chapter in order to create an engrossing and squirm-inducing story that will have you hooked until the end. I have to admit I began reading Parasite Rex a little ignorant about these complex and highly adapted organisms. By the final page, Carl Zimmer had successfully convinced me that parasites are not only incredibly fascinating and indeed disgusting, but in fact ‘nature’s most dangerous creatures’. An excellent book that I would recommend anyone to read, just maybe not before dinner.
Written by Harriet Allison