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“Engrossing … [An] expedition through the hidden and sometimes horrifying microbial domain.” —Wall Street Journal
“Fascinating—and full of the kind of factoids you can't wait to share.” —Scientific American
Parasites can live only inside another animal and, as Kathleen McAuliffe reveals, these tiny organisms have many evolutionary motives for manipulating the behavior of their hosts. With astonishing precision, parasites can coax rats 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 their influence. Organisms we pick up from our own pets are strongly suspected of changing our personality traits and contributing to recklessness and impulsivity—even suicide. Germs that cause colds and the flu may alter our behavior even before symptoms become apparent.
Parasites influence our species on the cultural level, too. Drawing on a huge body of research, McAuliffe argues that our dread of contamination is an evolved defense against parasites. The horror and revulsion we are programmed to 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. 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.
“If you’ve ever doubted the power of microbes to shape society and offer us a grander view of life, read on and find yourself duly impressed.” —Heather Havrilesky, Bookforum
Science journalist McAuliffe takes an "unabashedly parasite-centric view of the world" to suggest that perhaps microorganisms are actually the ones in control of human lives, with parasitic manipulation guiding human behavior and thoughts. Noting that correlation does not equal causation, McAuliffe reports on provocative studies that link contagious vectors such as the feline-associated, behavior-changing Toxoplasma gondii, which was the subject of her virally popular article in the Atlantic to mental illness and libido fluctuations, and others that link organisms thought of as symbionts, such as human gut bacteria, to obesity and personality. McAuliffe also presents some well-established yet still astonishing facts about neuroparasitology. The hairworm, for example, makes crickets behave erratically and head for water, leaving them easy prey, while the Ophiocordyceps fungus turns carpenter ants into "zombie ants." But by the book's end, she careens wildly toward biological determinism regarding a "behavioral immune system" that causes humans to shun the abnormal and unknown. She addresses studies linking visceral experiences of physical disgust with xenophobia and moral conservatism, and others that have connected living in an area prone to disease with developing a collectivist culture. McAuliffe presents her collected research often from small, nearly anecdotal studies less as fact than in a spirit of exploration.