- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Atria Books; New edition edition (November 9, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 074320011X
- ISBN-13: 978-0743200110
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (147 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures New edition Edition
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
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, tooDand we have a lot to learn from them about how to manage earth, the host we share. Illus. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
So why just three stars? Two reasons.
First, the lack of illustrations. Nature books -- especially of such strange creatures with their multi-stage life cycle – cry out for photos and illustrations. So although the text was very good, with nothing but words to go by, the visual images that the reader unconsciously comes up with could be far off the mark. (I.e., Picture visiting a natural science museum that has signs but no exhibits.)
Second, the book sometimes speculates about the influence that parasites may have had on evolution and animal behavior. Though such speculations make for interesting thought experiments, they are by their very nature unprovable.
The author takes the lives of parasitic organisms and makes it into high drama,and sometimes high comedy, as in the case of a bug, that, in order to thwart predators who scent its droppings, has turned its derriere into a high-powered rocket launcher that fires its feces far away in order to throw parasites off its trail.
I've spent enough time in academia (in the soft sciences/humanities) to have my eyes glaze over whenever I hear the word "interdisciplinary," but this book really does deserve the word. Zimmer brings everything to bear in his discussion, from parasites in pop culture/ media (the films of David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott). to ecological philosophy (a variation on the Gaia Hypothesis), arguing credibly that the ecosystem may perceive Homo Sapiens Sapiens as a parasite swimming in its own bloodstream, and that the multiple banes of our existences, like malaria, cancer, and AIDS, are nature's way of trying to rid itself of a persistent parasite repeatedly attacking its host.
I remember a marine biologist once telling me that she wasn't interested in science fiction, because nature always outdid the imagination. This book is proof of that theory. Hats off to Zimmer. Highest Recommendation.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the book is the lack of diagrams and its minimal number of photos. One of the coolest things about parasites is how gross they are and I wanted to see more of them. Also the same parasites seemed to keep coming up as examples of everything. Perhaps there are only so many types of parasites so it just doesn't matter whether one discusses blood flukes of humans or some other animal. But the book makes bold statements about how much more diverse parasites are than so called "free living" organisms, so it seemed a bit weird to continually be presnted with the "usual suspects" as examples of each of the parasitic principles.
The writing is clear and well organized, but goes on too long and is repetitive in places. This would probably have been a better book if were 30 pages shorter. But that's a quibble.
On the whole, a very good book that should interest anyone interested in natural systems and evolution, and parasites in particular.