Parasite Rex

parasite rex

After reading Parasite by Mira Grant, I couldn’t help but be curious about the real science behind the story. She even mentions Parasite Rex in her author’s note. When Aarti mentioned that she had Parasite Rex on her shelf and wanted to read it sooner rather than later, we decided to read it together. I’m so glad we did! This is a fascinating book that I think I’m going to be thinking about for a long time. The first portion of our discussion is featured here and the second part on Aarti’s blog.

Aarti:  I’m so glad to be doing a joint review of Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex because there was so much information in this book that was BIZARRE and I feel like both of us talking about it together will make it easier for people to believe that these things are true.

I think what made this book so interesting to me is that we know SO LITTLE about parasites at all!  Here we are, amazingly complex beings who can get to the moon and map the genetic code, but we can’t quite grasp how these tiny, super-simple organisms live and get around.  I love that.  I love that we are completely flummoxed by these things.  Part of the reason, of course, is that they change form so many times in traveling from one host to another, one life stage to the next.  But part of it also is that science neglected to understand the impact that parasites can have on an ecosystem for so long.  Since they are basic, simple creatures, they can’t possibly have a huge impact on life, right?  But they DO!

What did you think of the book?  Anything that stood out particularly to you?

Leslie: I really loved it, especially the final half. One of the things I really look for in a nonfiction book is the desire to sit up and say to the person next to me, “You’re not going to believe what I just read.” Not that every nonfiction book I read has to be shocking, but I want to learn things so cool, so fascinating, or so surprising that I want to share it with everyone I meet. Parasite Rex was definitely that kind of book. It even came up at Thanksgiving! My family started talking about peanut allergies and allergies in general and I got to share one of the theories in the book that one of the reasons so many more people have allergies in the developed world is because we don’t share our guts with the same parasites that were once so common. There’s even a study mentioned in the book where parasites were reintroduced to people with Crohn’s disease and a lot of their symptoms went away.

I was much less interested in the biochemical ways that parasites work, but I think that’s because a lot of it went over my head. My only real complaint about the book is the structure – the first third was so heavy on the minute details of how each parasite worked that it was a little difficult to get through. I was very happy when the book took a broader view of the parasitic world and how it interacts with daily life for plants, animals, and humans. The book would have been incomplete without the how, and it was definitely important for explaining the parasites later, but I wish it had been spread a little bit more evenly throughout the book. I bring it up mostly just to warn other readers like me: don’t give up! I might have if this weren’t a buddy read with Aarti and I’m so glad I didn’t.

Was there any fact that you kept sharing with people you talked to you?

Aarti:  I completely agree with you.  It was tough going through the parts that explained the development of one species vs another and where exactly in an animal a parasite wants to settle down for a particular life phase.  I admit that I skimmed those probably more than I should have so that I could get to the parts that were more interesting to me.

I think what really stood out to me was that parasites, without really having any thoughts of their own are able to so completely manipulate another creature’s thoughts and its free will.  They can lead beetles to their death, castrate caterpillars and eat them from the inside, cause crabs to mother completely foreign animals and so much more.  It was so easy to imagine them as evil masterminds when, in reality, many of them really don’t even have minds.

I also was really interested in the way that scientists now are trying to solve ecological problems with parasites; introducing them in the wild to fight invasive species, for example.  It seems like an idea that could go really well or horribly wrong, similar to your comment above about Crohn’s disease.  What do you think of this type of “natural” medicine?

To continue this discussion, head on over to Aarti’s blog BookLust!

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