How to Suck the Life Out of Parasites

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Reading about mind-controlling parasitic bugs might not be the best thing to do before you plan on drifting off to sleep. It was only a week ago that I found and murdered the first cockroach I've seen in my apartment, so I was already walking on eggshells. There was just something about the stories of these bugs that captured my attention. Was I already under their spell?

Seemingly to cope, the ghost of Ray Bradbury interrupted my thoughts with a quote of his I read weeks earlier: "When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burnings and I loved libraries. So there you are." If you weren't assigned the book in elementary school, you might not know the motivation here is clear. Fahrenheit 451 is the dystopian tale of "fireman" Guy Montag, who transcends from his all-important job of burning books to saving them from their demise and consequentially questioning his life.

As I was reading about the plight of parasites, the glow of my computer screen started to act like a mirror. There was something a bit more compelling to me than the narratives of modern ecology. And so to take a page from Bradbury's book, I'm writing about parasites because I hate when people fall below their potential and I love learning from others. Now, instead of avoiding parasites like the plague, I'd like to learn from them. 

Before we go anywhere, I should start by saying yes, yes, I know I am glorifying the horrors of some of the most terrible problems humanity has faced in its existence. Parasites are really destructive by definition. The Center for Disease Control states that a parasite is an organism that lives on or in a host and gets its food from or at the expense of its host. These creatures do not generally get a welcome hug from other species. But as The Obstacle is The Way author Ryan Holiday can counter: "There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception." Or as The Dude in The Big Lebowski would say, "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

Take the hookworm, for example. Before outhouses were even a thought, the hookworm, along with a sleuth of other parasites, would infect unsuspecting people when they went shoeless to their favorite tree and took a dump. The hookworm ravaged their insides and made most people lethargic and sick. Some of the long-term infected developed anemia. They looked like the walking dead.

After the invention of indoor plumbing and some decades of time, Radiolab flipped the hookworm narrative on its head. They told the story of Jasper Lawrence, a man so debilitated by his life-long allergies he took the biggest risk of his life to get healthy. When the Internet wouldn't sell him hookworms, Lawrence flew to Africa and stomped around in feces. Early research Lawrence read had proved right when he returned home with the golden ticket to his immune system - the parasites in his guts. It's not entirely clear why hookworm helps people like Lawrence but there is a theory that that parasite in him calms the immune system down enough to treat allergies and other damaging immune responses.

What I'm saying is it might be too easy to pass judgment on parasites as being destructive and ruthless. We're in a dog-eat-dog world and thoughts that we are at the top of the food chain can't always be so comforting. We're just as much food for parasites as bananas are for monkeys. It is, as the great Disney movie Lion King told us, "The Circle of Life.

Without even knowing it, parasites have adapted some amazing problem-solving skills and crafted amazing stories along the way. The habits of parasites almost read like a science fiction superhero comic. Or as freelance science writer Ed Yong put it in his TED talk:

“Parasites invite us to resist the allure of obvious stories. Their world is one of plot twists and unexpected explanations.”

To Ed Yong and myself, there is no better example of parasitic superpowers than the emerald cockroach wasp

The emerald cockroach wasp, or jewel wasp, has a very clear mission: find a cockroach and use it to make some sweet jewel wasp babies. (If you couldn't tell, I'm already on Team Jewel Wasp.) Hunting by sight and smell, the jewel wasp finds his victim and latches onto his back for a fight. The jewel wasp stings between the cockroach's legs, releasing venom to paralyze him or else he'll dart off. And then with horrifying precision, the jewel wasp stabs the cockroach in the head, digging through his brains to essentially turn him into a zombie. The jewel wasp drags the new zombified cockroach corpse like a dog to his grave, where the jewel wasp attaches an egg to the cockroach's leg and buries him to hide them both from predators. A few short days later, the baby jewel wasp comes into the world to find the one thing it'll spend its life torturing and eats the cockroach's internal organs as its first meal. 

There is something amazing about the interdependency that spans generations of evolution to understand just how to zombify and murder a cockroach to keep the circle going. And it doesn't stop there. There is no tapeworm without the flamingo. There is no toxoplasma gondii without cats. There is no hairworm without crickets. And there is no emerald cockroach wasp without, well, cockroaches.

Because we exist in a world where wasps control the minds of cockroaches and hairworms force crickets to commit suicide, I'm curious to ask where we fit in to all of this. It's time to chew on parasites, metaphorically, instead of the other way around.

What parasites do right by instinct and not free will is ask the right question. When your life is dependent on sucking the life out of another, you have one mission and you find out how to achieve it. You won't find a jewel wasp watching reruns of Hoarders, she is out there, searching. Years of natural selection have taught the jewel wasp just how to wrestle a cockroach and use it as a nursery. They can show us how to learn from the mistakes of those before us and tackle our livelihood with no questions but the most important one.

Of course, with the power to question our own existence, there is no single great story for each human being. We would get incredibly bored. We might share tips on how to get ahead in business or sculpt those six-pack abs in six weeks, we might steal from the rich to give to the poor. We're capable of endless unbelievable things, but with each baby born, we start over into a world vastly different from those before us. And we don't have to. All the narratives we write answering what each of us believes to be the big questions to life transcend our instincts to survival. We have the superpower to do amazing things when we work together. Where parasites might have the advantage of natural selection sharpening their tools of violent murder, our interdependence and idea sex has created and shaped the world around us. Without each of our stories clashing together, we would never have made things like the pencil and the smartphone. No jewel wasp is going to study astrophysics or write an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

When it comes down to it, the most awe-inspiring stories of parasites are just an extra shove for us to learn from the best of us and answer our own questions about life. Forget having a stinger with mind-controlling venom, you have the experience of billions of other beings just like or totally not like you to learn from every waking minute. You have the unique opportunity to dream and create your own experience. What do you have to give?