This Is Your Brain on Parasites is a riveting investigation of the myriad ways that parasites control how other creatures -- including humans -- think, feel, and act.
These tiny organisms can only live inside another animal and they have many evolutionary motives for manipulating their host's behavior. Far more often than appreciated, these puppeteers orchestrate the interplay between predator and prey. With astonishing precision, parasites can coax rates to approach cats, spiders to transform the patterns of their webs, and fish to draw the attention of birds that then swoop down to feast on them.
We humans are hardly immune to the profound influence of parasites. Organisms we pick up from our own pets are strongly suspected of changing our personality traits and contributing to recklessness, impulsivity -- even suicide. Microbes in our gut affect our emotions and the very wiring of our rains. Germs that cause colds and flu may alter our behavior even before symptoms become apparent.
Parasites influence our species on the culture level too. A subconscious fear of contagion impacts virtually every aspect of our lives, from our sexual attractions and social circles, to our morals and political views. Drawing on a huge body of research, we learn that our dread of contamination is an evolved defense against parasites -- and a double-edged sword. The horror and revulsion we feel when we come in contact with people who appear diseased or dirty helped pave the way for civilization, but may also be the basis for major divisions in societies that persist to this day.
In the tradition of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, This Is Your Brain on Parasites is both a journey into cutting-edge science and a revelatory examination of what it means to be human.
Co-authored with my sister Sharon, Life for Sale was published in 1981. It reports on the birth of genetic engineering technology—what was then a brand new development that invoked both awe and fear. The book took on the ambitious challenge of explaining to laymen the ramifications of biotechnology across a vast spectrum of fields—from medicine and agriculture to the energy sector and government policy. Sharon and I were both in our mid-twenties when we wrote the book, and perhaps reflecting the rosy-eyed optimism of our youth, some of our projections proved in hindsight too bold. But we got a surprising amount right—an accomplishment that my sister, who died at age 42, regrettably did not live long enough to realize. Not only has much of the book turned out to be prescient, but it also presents concepts whose radical implications are just now beginning to be appreciated outside the close-knit circle of molecular biologists. For a glimpse of the future we envisioned from the past, read the book’s epilogue, which addresses the direction biotechnology will take in the 21st century.
Life for Sale is no longer in print, but for anyone interested in reading more, most large libraries carry the book and it is often available from Amazon and other second-hand book dealers.