Everyone inside everyone eating everyone
Parasites! I can feel your disgust, your refusal to play along. Stop telling me about these freaky things or I will scream. I get it. Parasites are intruders, environmental toxins that kill less fit hosts; a nasty part of the natural habitat that must be overcome. The intensity of your disgust says something about how important such aversion must have been in the evolutionary prehistory of humans.
If we manage to tame our repulsion, however, the parasites might have something important to say – to teach us – about ourselves, and about the other beings and things inhabiting this planet. Listen! The parasite opens its mouth (even when it lacks a mouth) and sings:
I feel so alone
no body of my own
Please give me yours
Let me inside you
It won’t hurt much
unless it kills you
Let me call you
To understand the parasite we must acknowledge its song. The parasite sings about longing, about a neverending desire for hooking up. While grotesque, this is something we can all relate to. Parasites drift through water or slumber in soil, searching for skin to penetrate. Some hide in food, waiting to be ingested. When it finds you, the parasite not only infects, but violently transforms – turning you into a host. These vistitors stay permanently or semipermanently, living on, in, by and with.
Parasites love you so hard it hurts.
In order to fit into the larger bodies of hosts, parasites need to be relatively small. We humans have generally been most interested in understanding the infectivity that causes disease in ourselves, and in other animals which are commercially relevant to us. This has lead to a skewed conception of parasites, and a lack of focus on the central tendencies of infectivity. To better recognize parasitism I will consider the relationship between parasite and host without moralizing, focusing on how «the host and the parasite momentarily resonate together and form a novel circuit of intertwinedness».
From here on, things are going to get nasty.
Some just want to watch the world burn
Parasites need to connect, because they are unable to produce nutrients for themselves. In this respect viruses are genetic parasites which hijack cellular systems for their own replication. Parasites depend on others, and hosts often struggle against their presence. To shape the relation in their favor, parasites generally utilize tricks to stear and control the actions of their hosts. I will show a couple of examples highlighting how parasites function.
The trematode parasite Dicrocoelium dentriticum, starts its life-cycle in cow feces, which get eaten by snails. The snail then ejects the parasites in slime balls, which in turn are eaten by ants. The parasite will then hijack the ant’s nervous system, and lead the zombified ant to the top of a blade of grass, where it will wait for grazing cows through the night. If it is not eaten, the parasite lets the ant resume control, only to repeat the ritual the following night.
Toxoplasma gondii prefers the hospitality of cats, but often ends up elsewhere. If rats become infected the parasite makes it lose its fear of cat urine. The rat instead becomes attracted to the scent of urine, turning it into easy prey for felines. Every third human also carries T. gondii in their brain. This parasite has been linked to the tendency to experience negative emotional states (including depression, guilt and insecurity), and the severity of infection is linked to recklessness and suicide attempts. You are twice as likely to jump into traffic or stab yourself if you are infected with T. gondii. Countries with higher rates of infection have higher suicide rates.
What kind of incentive does the parasite have to cause such behavior in humans? The changes caused by T. gondii might seem curious today, but from an evolutionary perspective their thought control make just as much sense as that exerted over rats. In a time where large felines roamed the earth, the parasite would turn humans – just like the rats – into hassle free meals for cats.
- infection, which transforms the infected into a host
- drawing nutrients from its host to survive and replicate
- seizing control over vital parts of host functionality, including movement and cognition
- destroying the host, or pushing it towards self-destruction
Relationship status: It’s complicated
The parasites discussed so far continually and brutally destroy their homes, and can as such be considered as fastburners. Such a way of life is generally not viable, so one might expect softer forms of parasitism to exist as well. Viral infections are often acute, and spread rapidly. Following the acute infections, however, persistence is established. In these situations all survivors (of an area) will have been infected, and those that survive will have gained immunity. The expected outcome of viral infections is the stability of persistence.
The difference between fastburners and soft parasites is seemingly one of type. The shift in intensity in viral infections show that the difference can also be conceived as difference of time. Parasitism can be configured as shifts in intensities of interaction. It begins with the high intensity of infection. Fastburners maintain this, killing as many hosts as they can, constantly travelling – either within the same species or to different ones. Over time the hosts start adjusting – or the access to new hosts diminishes. The parasites get stuck, and in order to keep it up they need to go soft. The infection shifts into a slower state, where survivors and their offspring will carry the parasite.
Living inside a host entails a different strategy for the parasite. It starts caring for the wellbeing of its host. Inside your gut resides trillions of organisms, who in exchange for nourishment and habitation, help turn your foodstuff into nutrients for your body. The high cost (decreased resistance to pathogens) of having evolved the capacity to become colonized by these microbes, suggests that the colonization benefits us as much as microbes.
Over time the interaction between microbes and their hosts may become so cemented it turns a necessity. What does not kill you leads to dependence on sustained exploitation, where escape does not lead to freedom, but to a collapse of functionality. Modernity – with its excessive hygiene and antibiotics – has caused largescale extinctions of species from our guts. Such extinctions are heavily implicated in the diseases of civilization (with conditions ranging from allergies, autoimmunity to dementia, cancers and heart conditions).
Softburners take their time, but they will still finish the parasite-host-relationship by destroying their hosts. Following the phases of slowness, explosions of intensity will arise again. Infections may at any point reblossom from their dormant state. And when you die, the microbes in your gut will start digesting you from inside.
The story of life
You could call a parasite selfish, but their impact can not be described solely in negative terms. Parasites are nice. They complicate things. Without parasites life would be simple – maybe even single-celled simple. Let’s retrace your steps: Before you were human there were other humans. Before there were any humans there were other animals. Before there were any animals there were other multicellular life forms. Before there were any multicellular life forms there were single-celled life forms. So, what happened? How did everything flow from these lonely cells?
The story of life – evolution – is normally presented as a tree structure, with hereditary descent and genetic transfers from parent to offspring. Mostly, however, evolutionary change is imparted through co-inhabitation. As a counter to the three model of evolution, there is the rhizome, where any point can be connected to others, generating multiplicity and change. Rhizomatic evolutionary formation is not only the result of random mutations, hereditary descent and competition, it is in addition generated through horizontal transmissions of genes. Viruses, bacteria and other parasites permanently colonize hosts, adding their genes to them.
Multicellular life started with cells devouring some other cells, and instead of being digested, the eaten had the last laugh. One bacteria inside another, and multicellular life was formed. This is known as symbiogenesis: the birth of form from symbiosis. Symbiogenesis can be described as a process of old species «living in the warm belly of new ones», where eating and giving birth is tied together. «Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking».
Parasites are not accidental to development, and infection is not destruction. Parasites are changemakers, they injects themselves into hosts, into genetic lineages, and multiplies the possible outcomes. Rather than junk-DNA, viral genes may have been central for the development of placental mammals from egg-laying animals. Humans are super-organisms – every individual human being is an ecosystem of mutually dependent life-forms. The process of becoming human is therey a becoming with, where relation predates identity.
You are the parasite
Through this text I have used the word parasite mostly to refer to microscopic beings existing inside larger organisms – with the larger beings ranging from insects to humans. I have shown how parasites entangle hosts in webs of exploitation, where the hosts have no choice but to welcome them and try to make do as best they can. Through evolution, the love between parasites and hosts gives birth to complexity and to new life-forms.
What happens if we expand the understanding of parasites beyond those that are microscopic from a human perspective? Might the range of parasites include not only biology, but also tools and technologies, linguistic structures and social and economic relations? Parasites could perhaps be considered as the atomic form for all relations.
Considering all the lines of connection, and everything turns into systems hijacking other systems for their own survival: ideas and ideologies and matter and things. Every living being, and all the objects and institutions and structures emerging from human interactions become parasites. They want your resources, your energy, nutrients, blood, time, money, stocks, views, clicks, likes, the list goes on and on.
Wolves saw the chance to become dogs, and took it. Today they are parasites, and we love them for it. The pregnant human does not welcome the fetus inside its body, but experiences it as an intruder, and might even attack it. The city parasites and eats the land: the flesh of animals and plants, most edible produce is transferred from the land to the city. There are things and structures that we consider our tools. We imagine that humans have made them, and that we use them to aid our lives. But we are as much shaped by them as they are by us, and we are their tools, aiding them in their survival. You want money? – well money wants you too, it needs you, to continue its production and circulation.
You might say: Do away with these parasites! I want to be myself, and only myself! But there is no you. What you consider yourself is a constant battle with the wills of all kinds of parasites that use you for their own survival. Eradicate one parasite and thousands of others are ready to take its place. What you consider as the most you – what goes on inside your head – rests on parasitical drifts. Your thoughts form from conglomerations of systems that have hijacked you for their own further survival: the song stuck in your mind, the advertisement attracting your attention, but also the work of literature that captivates. Your thoughts are not yours. This is not you, it is your gut bugs: «our emotions, cognition, behavior, and mental health are influenced by a large number of entities that reside in our bodies while pursuing their own interests, which need not coincide with ours».
Insisting that relations are parasitical, «is a way of speaking clearly and calmly». It rids us of some preconceptions about what constitutes self and other, about who is in charge, and how change occurs. Opportunities for new connections constantly arise, with parasites jumping in to take them. One of the greates changes in human prehistory, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Agriculture did not emerge because it was a more efficient way of getting food. Rather it drastically reduced the quality of life, both in terms of life expectancy, free time, food quality, and gave rise to epidemic disease, class disparity and poverty. Agriculture could as such be considered the worst mistake of mankind. What made us settle down and grow crops then? Quite likely, we did it because it allowed us to brew beer. Bacteria and yeast injected themselves into our lineages, granting us the capacity to get drunk. The temporary release from selfconsciousness offered by alcohol spread through human populations, giving rise to civilization.
All parasites-within parasites share presence in, on, by and with a common host: the planet earth. The heaviest parasite load on earth is of human origin, it is all the parasitic structures and objects that have emerged from our presence. Up until quite recently these infections were relatively benign. Then with gradual increase, from the development of agriculture to the industrial revolution and the increasing technological intensities and globalization the parasitism on earth became greater and greater. Ultimately this has lead to our current state of climate crisis. All that extreme weather we are experiencing? That is the earth’s defence system trying to rid itself of intruders.
Parasites usually kill their hosts when they are passing through. Which planet will be the next host for the parasite which we call Homo sapiens?
 Villarreal 2012:3
 Serres 6
 Villarreal 2012: 302
 ibid: xii
 Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 10
 Villarreal 2012: 3
 Kramer and Bressan 2015: 3
 Villarreal 2012: 363
 Kramer and Bressan 2015:5
 Velasquez-Manoff 2012: 183
 Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 8-9
 Villarreal 2012: 361
 Maas and Pasquinelli 2014.
 Margulis and Sagan 2001.
 Kramer and Bressan 2015: 7
 Velasquez-Manoff 2012: 15
 Hird 2009: 130
 Serres 1982: 2
 Haraway: 29
 Ibid: 8
 De Landa 2000: 32
 Kramer and Bressan 2015: 1
 ibid: 11
 Diamond, Jarod 1987/1999.
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The sound an E coli bacterium would make as its propeller-like flagellum spins, moving it through its liquid environment. The laser used to detect it slows and eventually kills the bug. Generated from motion capture data by Ashley Nord & Matt Baker