A Positive View of Parasites

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A parasite is often to be admired for its ingenuity and persistence, even if it isn’t always attractive. A friend of mine once discovered a worm in his bed. It had come from his own body and had been living there for several months, beginning its tour in the previous March, when it manifested itself by giving him a cough and a bad chest. He found this out later when researching the life of the roundworm, which had apparently completed a convoluted journey round his interior, beginning in the spring. ‘The female roundworm’, he said proudly, ‘lays a quarter of a million eggs a day!’

It is perhaps a good idea to take this sort of positive view of parasitism, because, according to W. H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples, we are all parasites. ‘Most human lives’, he writes, ‘are caught in a precarious equilibrium between the microparasitism of disease organisms and the macroparasitism of large-bodied predators, chief among which have been other human beings,’ the sort involved in ‘war, plunder, enslavement, tax farming’.

I particularly like the inclusion of tax farmers in the macroparasitic group. And now the bad news: humans are not a totally successful form of parasite. In the long run, we may be on the way out, because we have not ensured the survival of our host. Seen from McNeill’s point of view, up in God’s position looking down at speck-persons, we have developed too fast and have made something of a cock-up of the ecological balance. The arrival of humans in the temperate regions, he says, was rather like the introduction of rabbits to Australia.

This is a horribly satisfying theory for those of us who already tend to the Swiftian view of humans, expressed in perhaps its most extreme form in Gulliver’s Travels by the King of Brobdingnag, who describes humans as ‘the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth’. ‘From the point

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About the contributor

Michele Hanson is getting on now and plans to devote a large part of the rest of her life to rescuing Boxer dogs. Dogs are considered to be one of the world’s most successful forms of parasite. She is hoping to learn from their example.

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