Dark, dark thoughts: parasites

I’ve been thinking about parasites.

Not the “earworm” sort of thing where you hear a bit of a song and can’t get it out of your head for the rest of the day. Not even the everyday suck-on-your-intestines nasties. I’m thinking about the kind of parasites that get into your mind and control your thoughts and actions.

For the record, I know *of* these parasites but I’m looking up the names online as I go along. Damn it, Jim, I’m an engineer not a biologist.

The sensitive and the squeamish may want to stop reading this now.


Ok, now that we’ve shaken off the fleas…

There’s a parasite that infects rodents, Toxoplasm gondii. It makes them all hyper and weird and THAT makes them easier for cats to catch. Where it gets interesting is that the life cycle of this parasite requires that it pass through the stomach and intestinal tract of… wait for it… a cat! How convenient!

I have occasionally wondered whether the active phase of the infestation makes humans more attractive to cats. Something like 40% of the population has antibodies to T. gondii. Maybe “the rat race” isn’t so far off, eh?

The psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey – whose sister is or was schizophrenic and is probably somewhat affected himself – is promoting the paranoid delusion that cat shit causes schizophrenia. Is it possible that when his sister got sick he blamed Fluffy? This, my friends, is a major researcher into bipolar disorder at the prestigious Stanley Foundation. We are SO f*cked.

Oh. In other countries with the same rate of antibodies to T. gondii in the population, there is less schizophrenia and the prognosis is better. Personally I think schizophrenia is a product of industrialization and I wish Dr. Torrey would quit wasting valuable time digging in the cat box.

There are many other parasites that affect the behavior of the host. Three more follow:

Sacculina infects crabs. If by “infects” you mean “castrates and takes over the mind and body.” This is the stuff of nightmares. Succulina injects itself into a crack in the exoskeleton and quickly grows out through the entire nervous system. Crabs that are infected can’t breed, can’t regenerate limbs, and spend the rest of their lives doing nothing but feeding and caring for the parasite. They even stroke and clean the monster, which in the female crab lives in the compartment where she usually holds her unhatched eggs.

Can you imagine having some THING living inside you, changing your brain so that the thing becomes the focus of your entire life? This is the stuff of nightmares.

The lancet fluke has a fairly complicated life cycle, but the interesting part is where it infects an ant. An infected ant acts like a regular ant by day, but at night she climbs up a blade of grass and waits at the top. The next stage of the parasite’s life cycle is to become a liver fluke in a cow. How better to be eaten by a cow than to have your host sit on the top of a blade of grass at dawn!

Another fluke infects fish – the young flukes migrate to the fish’s brain and crowd around it like pigs at a trough. Fish who are infected periodically stop what they’re doing and flail about at the surface of the water. Shorebirds find the flailing fish easy to catch, and yep, the birds are part of the life cycle too. The parasites boost the bird population by making more food available, but the fact that they kill their fish hosts puts limits on how much of the fish population can be infested. Again, a very convenient situation.

Hopefully you all are getting where I’m going with this – that parasites can make you do things you might not have done if it didn’t benefit the parasite. A parasite that flat out ate us alive would be found and eradicated like the screwfly was. Most of them are merely a nuisance.

Humans are, for the most part, repulsed by parasites. I’m sure there are some parasites somewhere that are status symbols, but I sure can’t think of any. Usually we want to avoid parasites if we can, and expel or exterminate them when we can’t.

It would be more adaptive if the parasite made humans enjoy being infested. I’ve read sci-fi stories about this sort of thing, and I remember at least one Star Trek episode where the infested feel **enriched** by the parasite and are absolutely delighted to forcefully spread it to others.

If you believe the writer William S. Bourroughs, language itself is a virus. Certainly memes, often called “mind viruses,” have some quality that helps them spread. Does anyone remember Laurie Anderson’s “Language is a Virus” from the “Home of the Brave” video?

Oh, he did a really nice book about the co-evolution of cats and people called “The Cat Inside” or something similar. I highly recommend it for the cat-infested.

Next section of this article will be on how *ideas* influence our thinking and behavior in the same way that parasites do.

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