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Riddled With Life    by Marlene Zuk order for
Riddled With Life
by Marlene Zuk
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Riddled With Life, Marlene Zuk gives us an insightful and witty survey - rich in examples from animal behavior - of our lockstepped evolution alongside 'Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are'. She calls it coevolution and states her belief that we cannot win a battle to eliminate disease from our lives but should rather seek reconciliation with it.

Discussing Darwinian evolution, the author quotes Randy Nesse - 'Natural selection maximizes reproduction, not survival or health' - and Francois Jacob who 'said that nature is a tinkerer and not an engineer.' She herself tells us that 'It's not that the good die young, it's that being good while you're young matters most.' While not recommending halting all forms of treatment, she discusses fever as an aid to recovery in mammals, and the benefit of coughs to remove harmful matter from the lungs. Zuk discusses the Hygiene Hypothesis, that allergies and asthma result from too clean early childhood environments that don't adequately stimulate the immune system. She mentions a possible relationship between the rise in Crohn's disease and our loss of exposure to parasites. She discusses how the myxomatosis virus, introduced to control the Australian rabbit overpopulation, evolved to become more benign, before its hosts were eradicated - in a kind of parasitical cost/benefit trade-off.

Sex - its presence and absence - in the animal kingdom gets coverage, from asexual reproduction in geckos to mating ladybugs, and primate behavior. Zuk explains how sex might have developed to allow the cycling of new genes to maintain resistance to evolving disease, and gives examples of sexual characteristics that show potential partners how parasite-free the male is. She goes into possible reasons for differing male and female longevity, as well as susceptibility to disease, advising that 'It may well be possible to be male and not the sicker sex. You just might have to live on a lily pond, eat weeds and bugs, and do all the childcare to get there.'

There's an accessible introduction to immunology, and a survey of current diseases and zoonoses (those that spread from animals to humans), including new discoveries that ulcers - and possibly schizophrenia and OCD - can be caused by parasites. I was especially intrigued by how a parasite can influence its host's behavior, for example making it more difficult for malaria-carrying mosquitos to suck blood, hence forcing them to seek more victims. Marlene Zuk ends by questioning how closely we are intertwined with the diseases we host and how much they influence our behavior. Riddled With Life is a fascinating read.

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