Manipulative Parasites and Norm Breaking Insects

The Ted Talk by Ed Wong, titled “Suicidal Wasps, Zombie Roaches, and Other Parasite Tales”, discussed ways in which parasites are able to control and manipulate their hosts. For example, monkey shrimp are typically translucent and live alone, but when hosts of parasites they are manipulated into turning a shade of red, and living in groups or swarms. The parasites manipulate the host shrimp because the red color and swarm behavior is advantageous to them; the parasites can only reproduce when inside a host flamingo, and the red color and swarm living makes the shrimp easy for the flamingos to find them and then eat them, thus allowing the parasites to enter a flamingo host. Another example of a manipulative parasite is a parasite called toxo that infects mammals. Toxo is seen to have its largest impact on mice on rats. Toxo can reproduce within cats, therefore their manipulation of mice and rats works such that the mice and rats make it easier for the toxo to be consumed by a cat; toxo programs the rat to move toward the scent of cat urine, bringing the rat into close proximity of a cat that will likely eat it. Although all of this is incredibly fascinating, what interested me the most about the video is the idea that parasites could be manipulating humans too. One in three people are hosts of toxo, so what is to say that they aren’t affecting us, since they can affect rats and our brains have the same structure and function. In AP Psychology we learn about many experiments and studies in which a rat’s brain is studied for the purpose of applying newfound knowledge about behavior and neuroscience to humans. Since rats are used a model for humans, isn’t it possible that toxo can affect human brains similarly to how it affects a rat’s brain? What caught my attention was when Wong mentioned that as humans we tend to believe that because we are higher order mammals than rats, we think we are more capable of resisting any possible parasite induced manipulation. It is possible that isn’t the case and we just don’t know it, which I find to be really interesting (and also a bit frightening!).  

The other video that intrigued me was Marlene Zuk’s Ted Talk titled “What We Learn From Insects’ Kinky Sex Lives”. The video was all about how insects break the societal norms humans have in place regarding sex roles. It also discussed the idea that the world stage is occupied by males, and females have walk-on roles, even in biology. The living world tends to be discussed in terms of males, which leads one to make assumptions and miss out on variations and differences among behaviors in the natural world. Had Aristotle been less focused on gender stereotypes put in place by humans, he may have been less confused by the fact that worker bees are female (rather than male), for example. The video brings a question that is generally social science focused to the realm of biology, which is really important. How can we address gender inequality socially, if we fail to reconsider how gender is approached when studying biological systems?

In society, it is important to consider how science affects humans socially. If a parasite is in fact impacting human behavior, that could change the way we look at human interactions. Once we stop analysing the natural world from a male centric lens, maybe gender equality will be easier to discuss socially, since all social behavior has a root in science.

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