Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

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9780684856384: Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE parasites control the minds of their hosts, sending them to their destruction. IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE parasites are masters of chemical warfare and camouflage, able to cloak themselves with their hosts' own molecules. IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE parasites steer the course of evolution, where the majority of species are parasites. WELCOME TO EARTH. For centuries, parasites have lived in nightmares, horror stories, and in the darkest shadows of science. Yet these creatures are among the world's most successful and sophisticated organisms. In Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer deftly balances the scientific and the disgusting as he takes readers on a fantastic voyage. Traveling from the steamy jungles of Costa Rica to the fetid parasite haven of southern Sudan, Zimmer graphically brings to life how parasites can change DNA, rewire the brain, make men more distrustful and women more outgoing, and turn hosts into the living dead. This thorough, gracefully written book brings parasites out into the open and uncovers what they can teach us about the most fundamental survival tactics in the universe.

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Review:

Many books provoke a visceral reaction, but few really make you itch. Science writer Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex does just that, provoking a deliciously creepy sense of paranoia in the reader as it explores a long-misunderstood realm of science. While entomologists love to announce that there are more species of insects than all other animals combined, few parasitologists choose to trump that by reminding us that "parasites may outnumber free-living species four to one." That figure is based on the multicellular chauvinism of the 19th century, which excludes bacteria and fungi from consideration (athlete's foot, anyone?), but Zimmer looks at the E. coli in our guts as well as the worms, flukes, mites, and other critters that earn a healthy living at our expense--and the expense of our domesticated plants and animals.

The author traveled to Africa to see firsthand the effects of sleeping sickness and river blindness. He learned from physicians and researchers that the parasites that wreak so much havoc are much more than the simple degenerates we've taken them for. Their complex adaptations to their environments--us--are as lovely and awe-inspiring as any eye or wing. The examples of hormonal and other behavioral control of hosts, causing changes in feeding habits and other life essentials, are chilling when personalized. Zimmer knows his subject well, and his writing, while robust and affecting, never descends to the all-too-easy gross-out. You wouldn't expect to find respect for a tapeworm, but Parasite Rex will show you how beautiful Earth's truly dominant life forms are. --Rob Lightner

About the Author:

Carl Zimmer, author of At the Water's Edge, is a frequent contributor to Discover, National Geographic, Natural History, Nature, and Science. He is a winner of the Everett Clark Award for science journalism and the American Institute of Biological Sciences Media Award. He lives in New York City.

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