Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are

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We treat disease as our enemy. Germs and infections are things we battle. But what if we’ve been giving them a bum rap?

From the earliest days of life on earth, disease has evolved alongside us. And its presence isn't just natural but is also essential to our health. Drawing on the latest research, Zuk answers a fascinating range of questions about disease: Why do men die younger than women? Why are we attracted to our mates? Why does the average male bird not have a ...

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We treat disease as our enemy. Germs and infections are things we battle. But what if we’ve been giving them a bum rap?

From the earliest days of life on earth, disease has evolved alongside us. And its presence isn't just natural but is also essential to our health. Drawing on the latest research, Zuk answers a fascinating range of questions about disease: Why do men die younger than women? Why are we attracted to our mates? Why does the average male bird not have a penis? Why do we--as well as insects, birds, pigs, cows, goats, and even plants--get STDs? Why do we have sex at all, rather than simply splitting off copies of ourselves like certain geckos? And how is our obsession with cleanliness making us sicker?

In this witty, engaging book, evolutionary biologist Zuk makes us rethink our instincts as she argues that disease is our partner, not our foe. Reconsider the fearsome parasite!

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
According to evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk, germs and disease don't deserve their bad rep. Drawing on recent research and her own studies, she explains why disease is mankind's best friend, indeed the key that jump-started the entire evolutionary explosion. Along the way, she answers questions many of us dare not ask, such as: Why don't male birds have penises? Why are we attracted to our mates? Zuk also describes the function of STDs and explains why women live longer than men. Her wide-ranging sampling of stories from the natural will appeal to everyone who enjoys popular science.
From the Publisher

"Fascinating."--Natalie Angier, The New York Times

"What's eating you? Or to put it more politely, 'sharing your space,' which happens to be your body? The answers are oddly consoling in evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk's witty 'disease appreciation' course . . . Beguiling."--O, The Oprah Magazine

Kirkus Reviews
You are what infests you-and that's not all bad, declares Zuk (Biology/UC-Riverside). This latest take on the hot field of evolutionary biology reviews scores of studies to suggest that all creatures great and small have always had to contend with parasites that need to live on the rest of us. As a result, we have co-evolved, honing our immune systems to control them, even as the bugs develop countermeasures. So don't even think of trying to sterilize everything around you; those very antibacterial potions may have contributed to the explosion of allergies and asthma as the immune system, lacking its normal stimuli, latches on to pollen or other innocuous matter. Feeding sterile worm eggs to patients with Crohn's disease has actually caused remissions, Zuk reveals, presumably because the immune system targets the eggs rather than becoming hyperinflammatory. And sex may have arisen because the gene mixing when sperm meets egg improves our immune defenses. Moreover, the author cites studies to suggest that when females choose the big antlers or the brightest coxcombs, it's because they read those as signs of a healthy male; testosterone actually suppresses immunity, so he has to have a really good defense system to start with if he is to invest in all that showmanship. Later chapters present fascinating material on how parasites can alter hosts' behavior, e.g., the spider that spins a tent to cocoon its infested wasp larva, along with speculation that humans may show personality changes from parasitic effects on the brain. As new diseases like AIDS and SARS emerge, and old diseases like tuberculosis stage a comeback, the author reminds us not to put all our faith in antibiotics, givenbacteria's effectiveness in developing resistant strains. Sure, some of this is over the top, and Zuk is certainly not arguing against sanitation, clean water, vaccines and drugs. But her basic point-that parasites will always be with us and not always against us-is well taken. Agent: Wendy Strothman/Strothman Agency, LLC
O Magazine
"What's eating you? Or to put it more politely, "sharing your space," which happens to be your body? The answers are oddly consoling in evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk's witty "disease appreciation" course... [B]eguiling."
author of Parasite Rex Carl Zimmer
"Parasites, Marlene Zuk informs us, have made us who we are. That may sound like science fiction, but Zuk, an eminent biologist and expert on parasites, makes a compelling case that it is true. Riddled with Life offers an entertaining but authoritative look at how parasites shape evolution, including our own."
author of Ghost Hunters Deborah Blum
"In this fascinating book, Marlene Zuk - who happens to be one of the most talented scientists writing for the general public today - illuminates our long and surprisingly intimate relationship with the pathogens that live around us and inside us. I loved Riddled with Life right down to its funny last line."
author of Genome Matt Ridley
"RIDDLED WITH LIFE is a book full of astonishing stories. We are only beginning to appreciate the bizarre natural history of parasites and diseases, and their unexpected and subtle effects. Marlene Zuk has a majestic command of her diverse material, and an eloquent story-telling style. If she does not change your mind about cooling fevers, eating sushi and keeping cats, I'll eat my hat (the bacteria in it will keep hay fever at bay)."
author of Why We Get Sick Randolph M. Nesse
"Zuk's book makes disease scintillating, wryly amusing and even sexy. Her enthusiasm and a hundred examples propel the reader to a deeper understanding of Darwinian medicine and the nature of life."
Natural History
"[Zuk] understands that invasive creatures are, like thunderstorms, earthquakes, and gravity, irreducible parts of the human environment. Living the good life, to Zuk, means reaching a kind of detente with the creatures that live around and in us... Her insight into disease is that, though some invasive microorganisms should be controlled, others can be endured, and still others may actually be helpful."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156034685
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/12/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

MARLENE ZUK is a professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, where she studies behavior in a variety of animals. She has written articles for numerous publications including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
What do we do when we get sick? The details, of course, depend on the illness, but the immediate and obvious answer is that we try to make ourselves feel better. A cold or bout with the flu usually spurs us to the pharmacy for cough lozenges, aspirin, and decongestants, while an upset stomach means finding a remedy for running to the bathroom. Alleviating the symptoms may not be a permanent cure, but it can’t do any harm, right?
Not necessarily. Although I dislike the analogies between war and disease, it does help to think of symptoms as the sounds, bullets, and urgent messages coming in from the front, with no indication of whether they are from friend or foe. Wiping them out indiscriminately risks destroying our own troops with friendly fire. In some ways, the Calvinists were right—suffering can be good for you, though the more modern application of this idea suggests that it is not the soul but the body itself that benefits from pain. The trick is to figure out when that is the case, and when there is no virtue in misery.
And what about diseases that do not result from infectious agents like bacteria or viruses, but seem to be a flaw in the factory model? Although some aspects of the human body can seem like a miracle of precision in design, our knees and backs give out and childbirth is not exactly a walk in the park. We have wisdom teeth that cause problems because there is no room for them in our jaws. Genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis persist in the population. We scientists always point to the amazing adaptations of organisms, whether it’s the design of our eye or a lowly moth’s wings that mimic leaves so perfectly that they have built-in tatters and stains from bird droppings. If nature does such an incredible job with camouflaging a mere insect, why has she dropped the ball with our vertebrae?
A relatively new field, called evolutionary medicine or Darwinian medicine, takes a radically different perspective on health and illness to answer these questions. First articulated by psychiatrist Randy Nesse and evolutionary biologist George Williams, Darwinian medicine places diseases and defects in an evolutionary framework to make sense of the apparent mismatch between the way our bodies often work and the way we would like them to: Natural selection may not have produced diseases like diabetes or arthritis directly, but it has made bodies vulnerable to them for a variety of reasons.
Back and knee problems are the source of enormous amounts of pain, and they cost society millions of dollars in treatments ranging from anti-inflammatory drugs to surgery, lost work time, and insurance payments. Lower back pain alone is said to afflict nearly half of many adult populations at one time or another within a given year. It is not confined to industrialized or even modern-day populations. Evidence of arthritis of the vertebrae and joints can be found in prehistoric hunter-gatherer skeletons, and back problems are even common in less technologically advanced populations, although the prolonged sitting of a cubicle centered lifestyle seems to exacerbate the malady. In search of the root cause, many scientists point to the toll that it takes for an originally four-footed mammal to get up and spend all of its time on its hind legs. Other apes are bipedal, or moving on two legs, for short periods, but our way of walking and running exclusively on two feet is ours alone. The evolution of bipedalism, thought to have arisen over 4 million years ago, may have freed humanity’s hands for stone tools, food baskets, and mobile phones, but it also caused a shock to the skeletal system from which we have still not recovered. Anthropologists speculate that our joints would have to be too large for efficient locomotion if they were also stable enough to bear our body weight, resulting in the current compromise of aching backs and knee braces.
Bipedalism also seems to be responsible for the change in pelvic anatomy between humans and our apelike ancestors. The short, broad pelvis of humans supports the torso and the gut, which is a good thing when you are walking upright, but it also made the birth canal narrow, which is not such a good thing when you are trying to have a baby. In addition, brain and head size seem to have increased quite rapidly in humans over the last million years or so, and while much of the growth of the infant brain takes place after birth, the size of the head of a newborn baby is still perilously close to the size of the passage it emerges from, something that causes more complications at delivery in people than in other primates. Childbirth is still a challenge for other mammals, but it is virtually always more straightforward in all animals than it is in humans. Interestingly, humans also seem to differ from most mammals in their apparently universal need for emotional support from others during labor and delivery; birth is unaccompanied in most mammals, but women from many if not all cultures seek out other people during childbirth. Anthropologist Wenda Trevathan suggests that the shift in the presentation of the baby during delivery to exit the birth canal face first, another result of our bipedal skeletons, also led to an increased risk of mortality if births were unattended. Hence, she argues, early humans were safer if birth became a social, or at least a supported, affair, something she suggests modern birthing practices would profit from understanding. Regardless of these travails associated with walking upright, walk upright we do, and Darwinian medicine suggests that problems like complicated births and backaches may simply be part of an evolutionary legacy. Nesse says, “We think the body is designed for health, but it isn’t. Natural selection maximizes reproduction, not survival or health.” This is a key point. Of course a certain level of good health is requisite for functioning, so that the truly enfeebled are at a disadvantage, but as long as an organism can reproduce and pass on its genes, all of its flaws will be passed on as well. François Jacob said that nature is a tinkerer and not an engineer; in other words, bodies got that way not through goal-oriented advance planning but by a series of lurching steps. Certainly a hypothetical mutant with a good back and wider pelvic channel who also had more offspring could prosper, but if possessing such traits imposed too many constraints on locomotion, said creature might never arise, or if it did, wouldn’t make it out of the starting gate.
Another problem in producing a perfect body is that evolution can only change things that happen at certain times of life. Say a bird can produce more eggs early on in life, because her body can turn calcium into eggshells more quickly than other birds can. That bird would be blessed with chicks over and above her relatively eggless relations. But what if the same gene that gave her all those eggs while she was young also caused her bones to become more brittle as she aged, resulting in the avian equivalent of osteoporosis, so that she couldn’t fly? Many genes do have such multiple effects, and biologists are extremely interested in the consequences of their actions. Surprisingly, it turns out that as long as a gene’s deleterious effects are postponed past the first peak of reproduction, and as long as that gene gives its bearer a sufficiently large advantage, such genes will be perpetuated in the population. This good-early–bad-late interaction is called negative pleiotropy, and it could be the evolutionary answer to why we grow increasingly decrepit in old age. It also means that imperfection in one body part is a regrettable but inevitable consequence of natural selection acting to perfect another. It’s not that the good die young, it’s that being good while you’re young matters most.
Pain and suffering are hallmarks of disease, and while philosophers and poets can wax eloquent about their benefits to the spirit, both physicians and their patients are united in wanting to eliminate them from the body. All forms of suffering are not created equal, however, and Darwinian medicine helps us understand the consequences of assuming that they are. Pain itself is a useful signal, of course. The few individuals born without the ability to feel pain lead very complicated and controlled lives and generally die at an early age. It is easy to understand why; we rely on pain to tell us when to move our hand from a hot stove or how far to bend a joint. But what about disease symptoms that range from annoying, like the itch of a mosquito bite, to debilitating, like the cough of pneumonia? What about the general malaise, the mopiness and lethargy that accompany a wide range of illnesses? Could they, too, serve a useful purpose?

Copyright © 2007 by Marlene Zuk
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887–6777.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2007

    `Did you know?¿

    'Riddled With Life' is riddled with wonderful bits of humor and intriguing facts. I have to admit that the biology was a struggle for me but that didn¿t take away from the reading experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and will not hesitate to recommend reading about bugs, parasites, and jungle fowl.

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