Disease is not merely ubiquitous. It is normal. It is natural. It is
even essential. Illness has shaped all living things for millions of
years, and life as we know it — we, as we know ourselves — would not
exist without disease.
I've been wanting to read Marlene Zuk's 2007 book Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are ever since I saw it on display at my local university's bookstore. In the interim I've read Carl Zimmers superb book Parasite Rex as well Robert Desowitz's fine books Who Gave Pinta to Santa Maria and The Malaria Capers, so I guess I must have a soft spot for parasites. A few weeks ago while I was at the public library I grabbed Zuk's book. While I was not incredibly impressed by it, nevertheless I did find it somewhat enjoyable. But more importantly, I found the subject matter quite interesting.
Zuk, a professor of biology at the University of California at Riverside, paints a detailed picture of the complex role of parasites as an integral part of all life on Earth. According to Zuk, since sexually reproducing organisms can create offspring with considerable evolutionary diversity, parasites are the primary reason why most if not all organisms reproduce sexually and not asexually. In fact, life in general is an ancient arms race of evolution and response between host and parasite. And as long as there's life, it will never end.
Zuk also writes about the "cutting edge" stuff that is going on regarding human health and parasites, such as research into a possible link between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia, as well as the therapeutic use of the porcine afflicting parasite whipworm to treat the autoimmune disorder Crohn's disease. It could all be a bunch of bunk, but it definitely made for enjoyable reading.
Since I am a huge fan of spicy food, I especially enjoyed what she had to say about the use of spices in cooking. According to Zuk, research has shown that cultures associated with warmer climates tend to use lots of spices in the local dishes. It is thought that such spices tend to have antimicrobial properties, just what you need when you don't want your meal going bad while dining in India, Indonesia or Thailand. This is also why the meat dishes common to these regions contain more spices than their vegetarian counterparts. The greater the variety of spices used in a dish, the lesser the risk of bacterial growth and spoilage.
But, as much as I as enjoyed the subject matter covered in Zuk's book, Riddled with Life did not blow me away. Several reviewers on Amazon thought the book was not edited well and unfortunately, I must agree. Still, if you enjoyed Parasite Rex and/or Sharon Moalem's Survival of the Sickest, you probably should read Riddled with Life.