Amoeba’s Lorica: Ticks Fleas

Flea wishes to be less of a parasiteYour Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba, being an amoeba of a certain age, misses Gary Larson. (We pause briefly while the twentysomethings – the ‘millennials’ – do a websearch on ‘Gary Larson’ and text each other about it.) Larson, one of the few biologically-literate cartoonists ever, drew the single-panel comic The Far Side for 15 years, to rave reviews and considerable fame and fortune, while cartoons still ran in newspapers (we pause briefly while the millennials do a websearch on ‘newspapers’), and got out long before the rise of the Internet removed ‘fortune’ from the list of reasonable aspirations for a cartoonist. Larson, YFNA reads, has spent the last twenty years in what yours truly imagines to be a comfortable, if, on occasion, somewhat damp, retirement in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, USA, a location with which YFNA is tolerably familiar.

Larson’s cartoons frequently consisted of anthropomorphic animals miming human behavior, acting out outrageous visual puns, or otherwise cutting up, in a manner that somehow managed to be, at the same time, ridiculous and true to the animal’s natural history. (See ‘biologically literate’, supra; see also the millions of Far Side comics that have adorned, and to this day still adorn, office and lab walls and doors in university science departments worldwide). One such panel had a dog serving as a conductor in a commuter train (complete with the appropriate hat), passing down the aisle, holding out a cup, and requesting of the passengers (all dogs and cats), “Ticks fleas”. (“Tickets please”)

Pay your fare and purge yourself of your parasite load, all at the same time. With the scratch that keeps the railroad solvent. Win win.

Unlikely, YFNA surmises, that any millennial will do a websearch on ‘parasite load’. That’s, like, so ‘natural history’. Ew. That, and dog. Gotta keep the dog on the leash and, y’know, out of the dirt. And hey, can I get a collar for my cat that will kill the fleas off and not have any chemicals in it?

No, most folk these days haven’t a clue about parasites. Especially not the types of folk who shut down nature cams because nature does nasty things like kill babies, or make them sick, or make them eat disgusting things like their natural prey – without taking the plastic wrap off first – and we demand that you make those animals stop this right now!! Folk who would be [ahem] very surprised to find out that humans used to be no less beset by vermin than their dogs, that they would be so accustomed to these vermin that they would feature them in their love poetry – this being two centuries before science recognized that said vermin carried such remarkable tryst potions as the Black Death and thus would more appropriately feature in their funeral orations.

Parasites?!? That’s what filthy people get. Like Mexicans and Syrians. That’s why we have clean houses and keep them clean, and we have washing machines, and showers with hot water and soap, and we use them.”

YFNA knows some people who, ah, rather obviously live off the grid, and he knows others whose nostrils are offended by this. “Yes, well, before you mail that next check to 350.org, you might wish to consider that, should the energy supply that keeps the vacuum cleaners and steam mops and washers and dryers humming, the energy that moves the water to your house and heats it, be cut off … you know that joe you were just sniffing at? This will be you.”

Not to mention the sanitary processing of foods. And the medicines.

To a parasite that fancies your kind, you – yes, you – are (give or take a few) 75 kilograms of idle biological assets that are not carrying their weight of responsibility to the global eco-economy. And they have ways of getting to you. Like the parasite that causes malaria, which can change the behavior of infected mosquitoes so that they fly faster and bite more people – so the parasite can spread around. Like the worm that creeps into the ant’s brain and makes it crawl to the top of a grass stalk at the end of the day, clamp itself there, and stay put overnight or until some sheep or cow eats it – so the worm can get to the liver of the animal and, once there, eat and breed.

And perhaps you have heard about toxoplasmosis, and how the parasite responsible can change human behavior? Not by much, perhaps, but still …

And perhaps you have heard about how much harder it’s getting to kill mosquitoes, or find medicines that work against the malaria parasite …

The longer a living thing lives, the more time it has to be found and targeted by parasites. And the more energy it has to spend to fend off, or bear, the parasites that find it. Sooner or later, the load becomes too much. The parasites become too many, or the side effects of the coping strategies become unbearable. This is how come no living thing lives forever. Sound Taps, please.

Hopefully the living thing has had a chance to breed before succumbing – and perhaps some of those offspring have a new wrinkle that will do a better job of fending off the parasites. A new antibody, perhaps, or a different behavior. Which will work until the parasite finds out about it and catches up. And so on and so forth.

The longer a political system lives, the more time it has to be found and targeted by parasites. Forty-seven percent of us were ‘parasites’ in 2012, wasn’t that right, Mitt? And the more energy it has to spend to fend off, or bear, the parasites that find it. Sooner or later, the load becomes too much. The parasites become too many, or the side effects of the coping strategies become unbearable. This is how come no political system lives forever. Sound Taps, please.

Think about it. Humans have tried just about every iteration of social governance that can be imagined – most of them, multiple times. Absolutism, agrarianism, anarchy, atheism, capitalism, communism, democracy, egalitarianism, fascism, industrialism, libertarianism, monarchy, oligarchy, protectionism, republicanism, segregationism, theocracy – all have worked for a time but, ultimately, all have failed. Surely, after so many millennia of civilization, if there was a superior system, we would have found it by now. There is none, YFNA argues. Like the living things, the political things succumb to their parasites: the corrupt, the indolent, the gamers who have learned how to gain the most from the system while contributing the least. Then somebody comes along and overthrows the old system with a ‘new’ (actually, another old) system that throws off the established parasites and, therefore, works for awhile. Until the parasites catch up again. Rinse and repeat.

It is a nice question whether, in the internet age, any new iteration of a polity will have a chance to take hold before tech tells the parasites how and where to attack it. Does it really matter whether Trump represents the dictatorship of the Donald, or Sanders represents a dictatorship of the Bernista, or Clinton represents an entitled establishmentarian in a social warrior’s clothing (or, maybe, an orange jumpsuit)? Two minutes websearching, and the parasites know how to take each one of them down. Quickly. The parasite is [insert preferred gender-neutral, or not, monarchical title here].

Perhaps it’s fitting that Gary Larson had a louse named after him.

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