Los Angeles Weekly , January 1, 2004
"A squirm-inducing masterpiece."
New York Times Book Review, October 22, 2000
"With Parasite Rex, Zimmer proves himself as fine a science essayist as we have."
Mark Ridley, New Scientist, August 19, 2000
"Superb...a non-stop delight...Zimmer represents a healthy trend in science writing. In contrast to many writers, he popularises science on its own terms rather than twisting it into one of the cliches of the marketplace. There are no apocalyptic, sensational or quasi-religious themes in Zimmer's writing; the science can be enjoyed- as Zimmer clearly does-for what it is."
Susan Adams, Forbes, September 8, 2000
"Zimmer is such an accomplished, vivid writer that he is able to weave these revolting beasts into an engrossing story that you will read to the last page."
Publisher's Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
One of the year's most fascinating works of popular science is also its most disgusting. From tapeworms to isopods to ichneumon wasps, "parasites are complex, highly adapted creatures that are at the heart of the story of life." Zimmer (At the Water's Edge) devotes his second book to the enormous variety of one- and many-celled organisms that live on and inside other animals and plants. The gruesome trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness had nearly been routed from Sudan when the country's civil war began: now they're back. Costa Rican researcher Daniel Brooks has discovered dozens of parasites, including flies that lay eggs in deer noses: "snot bots." And those are only the creatures from the prologue. Zimmer discusses how the study of parasites began, with 19th-century discoveries about their odd life cycles. (Many take on several forms in several generations, so that a mother worm may resemble her granddaughter, but not her daughter.) He looks at how parasites pass
from host to host, and how they defeat immune systems and vice versa. Many parasites alter their hosts' behavior: Toxoplasma makes infected rats fearless, thus more likely to be eaten by cats, who will then pick up the microbe. Quantifiable "laws of virulence" lead parasites to become nasty enough to spread, yet not so nasty as to wipe out all their hosts. And eons of coevolution can affect both partners: howler monkeys may avoid violent fights because screwworms can render the least scratch fatal. Two final chapters address parasites in human medicine and agriculture. Not only are parasites not all bad, Zimmer concludes in this exemplary work of popular science, but we may be parasites, too-and we have a lot to learn from them about how to manage earth, the host we share.
Zimmer, a columnist for Natural History, has written an absolutely fascinating book about parasites--once the reader gets past the "grossness" factor. As with his previous book, At the Water's Edge, evolution is central; Zimmer considers not only how parasites have evolved but how they may have helped the evolution of other species. Though humans are not the only species discussed, some of th emost interesting evolutionary theories come from human-parasite relations. Mild cases of sickle cell anemia, for instance, seem to protect against malaria, implying that these sorts of blood diseases have evolved with the air of parasites. The author discusses more recent research suggesting that some modern diseases, such as allergies or ulcerative colitis, may actually be triggered by our immune system's not having parasites to fight. This well-written book makes parasitology interesting and accessible to anyone. Not a textbook (a few good ones are recommended in a selected bibliobraphy),
it does have a place in science libraries, even for students who don't realize that their field of study is related to parasitology.
Parasites, the stuff of many people's nightmares, are a biologist's dream--superbly adapted creatures that have evolved sophisticated strategies for living off their hosts. [Carl Zimmer] describes the parasites' lifestyles in vivid detail. His subjects range in size from the protozoan Plasmodium (which can fit inside a human red blood cell) to tapeworms, which can grow 60 feet long. Living inside another rcreatue's body requires developing elaboarte ways to dodge the immune system, from hiding in cysts to releasing tame viruses that decoy defenses from the actual threat. Some parasites can modify the behavior of their intermiedate hosts, making them more vulnerable to the predators that are their final hosts. Toxoplasma, which passes from rats to cats, turns off a panic mechanism triggered by the smell of cat urine, so the rats no longer instinctively avoid their feline hunters. Many parasites sterilize their prey, diverting energy from reproductive activity to the create of food for parasties. Parasitologists
believe that this sort of behavior, making some infected animals 30 times more likely to be eaten, has a profound effect on the balance of predator and prey species in the wild. But to most readers, the real meat of the book will be its description of the ways in which parasites affect the human race. The biggest surprise: rainforest Indians in Venezuela, commonly infected with intestinal parasites, are almost entirely free of asthma. Scientists speculate that, without parasites to repel, the immune system turns its attention to otherwise minor irritants such as dust mites and cat dander. As with so many other apparent advances, the cure for one disease may well be the cause of another. An eye-opening perpective on biology, ecology, and medicine--well worth reading, even if the subject makes you squeamish.
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