Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A short story about parasites


"Yes professor, but it is a fascinating one."

"Qua-Kon Kin, our research project was specifically aimed at understanding human reproduction and you bring me here to tell me that you've discovered a parasite."

"We're still working on reproduction, our bacteriologists have discovered that, like us, Earth bacteria divide by a process of binary fission, some larger creatures also, but so far we've not managed to observe the process of division in humans. It is all very curious."

"Curious? Of course it's curious that's how we managed to secure the funding; if it wasn't curious there'd be no point in doing the research in the first place. Listen, we have only one more year of funding and I, for one, do not think that the research council will be pleased if after three years our final report says that 'its curious'. Nor will they be overly impressed if all we can stump up is another bloody tapeworm. What is it about you and tapeworms anyway?"

"This isn't a tapeworm, professor, this is far bigger and its life cycle is ... well interesting."

"Oh very well Qua-Kon, tell me about your parasite then"

"Well you know the one we discovered on a previous expedition, the one that takes control of the brain of an ant, driving it up a blade of grass so that it gets eaten by a sheep?"

"The brain worm, yes I remember."

"Well we've found one that does something similar in humans."

"I wasn't aware that sheep ate humans, I thought it was the other way round."

"No I meant that it seizes control of human's brains."

"Go on."

"Well like many other parasites it starts of as a tiny cyst-like structure and then grows to quite some size. It uses a kind of anchor that it fixes to the abdominal cavity. And here's the clever bit, the anchor taps directly into the host’s blood supply. It steals food and oxygen straight from them."

"Clever, very clever. So it doesn't need to have any way of digesting the food itself?"

"Precisely professor, the host does all the donkey work in finding food and digesting it. The parasite just steals it. The ultimate ready meal, I suppose. Anyway it quite quickly reaches quite a size."

"How big?"

"Three, maybe four kilograms."

"Noticeable then?"

"Very. By the end the sufferer’s body is distended so much that they find it difficult to walk easily."

"And then what?"

"Well then it ... how can I put this ... leaves the host's body. Do you remember that film our anthropology department picked up being broadcast from Earth? The one about the alien?"

"I do indeed. Another piece of offensive human propaganda, if I recall correctly, depicting anything that is from another planet as evil, crude and predatory. What of it?"

"Well professor, the parasite leaves the body in a similar way."
"Oh my..."

"Exactly, it rips itself out. A process that involves blood, gore and lots and lots of screaming. Sometimes it can take hours. Some of our scientists have had to have counselling as a result of the trauma. Compared to this, tapeworms are a walk in the park."

"But Qua-Kon we know that parasites are creatures of stealth. They operate by subverting their host's biological processes and using them to their own ends, so conspicuous a parasite would surely get killed as soon as it emerged."


"And it if were killed it would be unable to divide..."

"Precisely so."

"So if it can't reproduce how does such a parasite continue to survive? This is against every biological law. I'll never be able to publish this. I'll be a laughing stock! We'll all be a laughing stock!"

"Ah but that's the really, really clever part. It doesn't get killed."

"How so?"

"Well as I said earlier, it takes control of the hosts mental processes. Look you'd imagine, would you not, that if a great, blood-spattered parasite tore its way of your abdomen you'd look around for the nearest coal shovel and batter the life out it if."

"Certainly, I would."

"But they don't. They wrap it in a blanket and cuddle it.”


"Yes cuddle it professor. And they smile at it. And touch it gently. They even allow it to feed itself by apparently chewing on parts of their upper abdomen. You see what I mean when I say it subverts their mental processes?"

"This is all too much Qua-Kon."

"I've not even got my pants off yet, if you pardon the expression, professor. So great are its powers of manipulation that it continues to parasitise the host, or I should say hosts -- you know how these earthling tend to inexplicably hang around in pairs? Well it parasitises them for years."


"Years, professor. The hosts spend many thousands of their earth pounds providing the parasite with all it needs -- food, drink, even small artefacts that the parasite seems to derive some sort of pleasure from. Although we currently have no conception of what biological purpose these artefacts play in the parasite's life cycle."

"From what you say, Qua-Kon, this sounds more like a symbiotic relationship. Mind control or not, no rational organism would surely devote so much time and effort satisfying the desires of such a parasite. There must be something that the parasite -- or symbiont as I would prefer to think of it -- gives back to the host. I simply refuse to believe that such a degree of psychological manipulation is possible."

"I know professor. The thought had occurred to us too. But our scientists report that the parasite provides nothing to the hosts. Not only that, but if the hosts aren't supplying enough food, or enough drink, or enough of these apparently functionless artifacts the parasite makes these noises."

"Noises? What kind of noises?"

"Oh horrible, blood-curdling noises. Screams the like of which you've never heard. They also throw themselves on the floor flailing their limbs so much that we initially thought it was experiencing some kind of seizure."

"And then what?"

"Oh the hosts are soon off getting food, or drink or artefacts which seems to placate the parasite temporarily. I tell you professor some of our scientists have themselves taken to obtaining a selection of small artefacts just in case the hosts fail to stump up the goods. That's how nerve-janglingly awful the whole thing is."

"And for how many years does this last?"

"We're not exactly sure, but we get the feeling it may well last for the host's lifetime."

"A lifetime! Hell's teeth I thought that those parasitic wasps we discovered were bad, but this is immeasurably worse. How do they believe their god could permit such a thing?"

"According to our religious studies experts their god seems to actively encourage it. In some cases even banning devices that could prevent the infestation, and prohibiting surgery that could remove the parasite before it emerges."

"And humans believe that their god loves them? Tsh!"

"They are a very peculiar species."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Facebook as a social cheeseburger

I'm generally wary of the word addiction. It seems too easy to label any behaviour performed to excess as an addiction. In the old days addiction was used to refer exclusively to the misuse of pharmaceutical products (alcohol, drugs) that exert their effects by way of a direct tinkering with neurochemistry. Further, it seems that the word addiction can be used as a means to exculpate the individual from personal responsibility. We hear of sex addiction, shopping addiction and gambling addiction -- the old-style response would have been "pull yourself together and take control of your life". Nowadays such people are looked upon sympathetically and described as having 'a disease'.

But hang on. If we accept pharmaceutical addiction as real should we not accept behavioural addictions as real also? After all they affect the same reward systems and neurochemical pathways as do drugs; they just do it indirectly rather than directly. Cocaine and, say, sex have similar effects on the neurotransmitter dopamine, so it seems churlish to refer to a craving for the former as an addiction and the latter as not.

But what about Facebook addiction? Is it possible to describe excessive use of Facebook as an addiction? The fact is that many so-called "internet addictions" are misnamed. People aren't really addicted to the internet per se (the internet is just a bunch of cables, routers and protocols, after all) what they are addicted to are online services. So people with "internet addictions" have addictions to online gambling, pornography, shopping and the like.

So a Facebook addiction is probably a social addiction but the notion of a social addiction still seems odd. You might well consider someone who morbidly browses eBay for hours on end a shopping addict, but is it possible to be a social addict?

Consider a person who spends 5 hours of their day chatting to friends face to face or on the phone, is that person a social addict? What about someone who spends 10 hours doing it? We probably all know people who find it difficult to spend time on their own, who find that they always have to be engaging in social interaction with others, however trivial. Although these people can be irritating -- especially when you have work to be getting on with -- we would probably never think of them as being social addicts.

Interestingly if you look at the synonyms for "sociable"

accessible, affable, approachable, close, clubby, companionable, conversable, convivial, cordial, familiar, genial, good-natured, gregarious, intimate, neighborly, regular, social, warm.

All positive, things you want to be.

And here are the antonyms.

introverted, snobbish, unfriendly, unkind, unsociable

All negative

My point is that our language enshrines our view on sociability, it is seen as a good thing to be sociable and a bad thing to be unsociable. Is there even a word that means "excessively sociable"? Is there such a thing as an "excessive social personality". A few minutes on the internet suggested not. All I found were webpages on William's syndrome a chromosomal disorder that, among other things, leads individuals to excessive sociability. This is seldom seen as a problem apart from the fact that their generally low IQ can lead to them being overly trusting and ripe for exploitation.

So there is no such thing as social addiction (at least not yet) and there are no words to describe personalities that crave the interaction of others. But interact with other people through a computer and hey presto you have a "social media addiction" or a "Facebook addiction" (Google them).

Here is the way I think of it. Salt, fat and sugar are essential for life but were rare in our ancestral environment so we developed a strong preference for their flavour to ensure that when we got them we ate as much as we could. This strong preference is now problematical as the industrial manufacture of foods makes them plentiful. We repeatedly gorge ourselves on each cheeseburger as if it were the last with the result that we become fat. Likewise as social species we evolved an obsession with the lives of others we need to know where we are in the pecking order, who's doing what to (and with) whom, who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down. Facebook presents us with all of this stuff on one easily digestible site so we gorge ourselves. But what are the negatives?

Hard to say. Aric Sigman thinks using Facebook will lead to poor mental and physical health ("Facebook gives you cancer" the headlines screamed) and there are plenty of others out there who will reach for their apparently endless supply of non sequiturs and present poorly constructed hypotheses as fact (but enough about Susan Greenfield).

Many of these arguments rest on the premise that people are neglecting their "real" (by which they invariably mean face-to-face) friends preferring to chat with their online friends (who, if you read the Daily Express, are a collection of men pretending to be women, paedophiles, stalkers, identity thieves, spammers and psychopaths). But most online friends are offline friends so most aren't neglecting these relationships and there is no evidence that use of Facebook leads to a decrease in face to face activity.

If Facebook addiction truly an addiction with no consequence? The fag that doesn't give you cancer, the booze that doesn't bloat your liver, the cheeseburger that doesn't make you fat?