Hannah Scribbles

Book Review: What’s So Great About Parasites?

In Books/Authors, Movies/TV, Pop Culture! on July 10, 2013 at 7:30 am

In Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer sets out to tell the story of parasites, small organism that leave a shadow as large as any dinosaur. Zimmer travels to remote hospitals and more reachable, unexpected parasitic hotbeds to learn from the biologists who make mealybugs, barnacles and blood flukes their life’s work.

Blending vivid description, personal experience and a millennia of evolutionary history, Zimmer crafts a compelling book that dissects the hidden history of parasites and leaves the reader with an appreciation for the complex organisms. His extensive conversations with parasitologists let him trace the history of parasites and open up the science behind the theory of parasite-driven evolution.

How do you make the invisible interesting?

blood fluke, trypanosome, tsetse fly, sleeping sickness, parasite rex, carl zimmer parasite rex, science writersTell a compelling story. To carry the story, Zimmer uses a combination of personal narration and description. The book opens at a hospital in southern Sudan. Here, doctors treat a boy suffering with sleeping sickness, the endemic disease caused by tsetse flies. The narrative pulls back, explaining the history and biology of trypanosomes, the parasite responsible for the outbreak.

The first section of the book is a warm up that introduces the reader to the idea of parasites. Traditionally, people are repulsed by and even refuse to acknowledge the existence of parasites. So here Zimmer has his work cut out for him, and he accomplishes the task with skill, sliding into gruesome descriptions a bit at a time with a self aware fascination that proves as infectious as some of his subject matter.

The second portion of Parasite Rex is more engaging than the first. Weaving through the narrative with Zimmer, the reader comes to understand that the book is more an homage to parasites themselves than a focus on the scientists studying them. Parasitologists come and go with government funded research programs, but the complex organisms at the end of Zimmer’s microscope are relentless. Zimmer raises the possibility that parasites shape ecosystems on a more fundamental level than humanity previously thought possible. Parasites can make or break an ecosystem, proving to be clever solutions to ecological problems – or a terrible error.

carl zimmer, science writers, medical writers, non-fiction science, books about parasites, parasitology

Carl Zimmer

Rating: 4 Stars

Reason to Read: Explore a side of the Animal Kingdom no one wants to talk about. Barring that, read it for morbid curiosity.

Favorite parasite: Blood flukes.  How do they do it?!

Grossest parasite: Cymothoa exigua, the parasitic fish “tongue.”

  1. […] Book Review: What’s So Great About Parasites? (hannahscribbles.com) […]

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