Parasite Book Review

My mom saw This Is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe on the new book shelf of our library and brought it home for me. She knows me so well.

There was a lot of cool information about what’s going on in the science of parasitology that I had not read before. There’s a lot going on in the field of disgustology as well. Strangely the author does not distinguish between parasites, viruses, biotics, and symbiotes. If the creature lives on humans or uses humans in their life cycle, she refers to them as parasites. So there was a lot of stuff about disease, and about probiotics, which I wasn’t expecting but was a wonderful bonus. I personally would not refer to such things as parasites because I think of parasites as creatures that take from a host and give nothing back. Which I suppose viruses fall into but probiotics do not.

The main thrust of the book is how the lifeforms that live on us change the way we think. She talks about Toxoplasma and schizophrenia for example. She makes a case for parasites changing moods, political views, where we spend time, who we mate with and the way we view others. It’s fascinating stuff and I truly enjoyed reading it. She has a short history of how humans have changed their habits over the past 10,000 years or so and how these changes have made parasites the scourge that they are. Basically by eating poor diets, moving large amounts of people into smaller areas near water and not doing the things that our ancestors did to protect themselves from parasites. She then concludes that that if we can control parasites we can change the world into a safer and better place.

I think she misses the point about how -humans- did the changing and parasites are just doing what they do. The fault lies not in parasites but in our own behavior. We stopped doing the things that protected us from parasites. Yet her solution is about changing the parasites when really we could, if we chose to, start eating better, and stop living in huge groups near water doing the things that make the parasites so deadly to us.

Also I think her case for parasites being the big bad guys is a little weak. Although parasites may influence us, I don’t think they are any more or less manipulative than any other factor of our environment. Other people, for instance: humans aren’t tucked away inside our brains or livers but they change our attitudes and how we behave in much the same way that parasites do. They can encourage us into bad behavior, contaminate us with diseases, and they can even ruin our lives. Sure we could re-jigger our neighbors with brain washing or genetically manipulate them into being more compliant but not all people are bad and it would be morally repugnant to brain wash everyone. It makes more sense to change our behavior. It’s easier, for one thing, and less harmful for another. I don’t think the manipulations that parasites get up to are any worse than what other people do to us every day.

Still, it’s an informative book even if some of her facts about history are wrong. Worth a read.

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