Naturally nasty

What parasites can teach you about being a better human

March 8, 2014
March 8, 2014

Nature is gross, messy, and dangerous. If you pretend otherwise, you’re missing out on the best of the natural world—and probably making some bad decisions about the best way to live your life and run your business. That’s the premise of Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You, written by Dan Riskin of Animal Planet’s parasite-centric show Monsters Inside Me and released this week.

Riskin, an evolutionary biologist by training, mostly focuses on the mechanics of bat movement. But in traveling the world to study vampire bats, he became an expert on the behavior of parasites. His book is a collection of amusing (and disgusting) factoids about nature’s darker habits. But he thinks there are lessons to be learned from his compilation of anecdotes, too. We gave him a call to find out just what he learned about life the day he had a parasitic grub removed from his scalp:

Quartz: Your book takes all these anecdotes from the natural world—really gross ones—and tries to use them to say something about humanity. How’d you get there?

Riskin: At first it was just an avalanche of disgustingness. Like, a spider that rips off its own penis during mating to escape from the female. And having to get a botfly grub cut out of my head. It was a bunch of great dinner conversation starters, and a lot of fodder for giggles. But I was looking for a way to organize them, and my wife suggested the seven deadly sins. And once I framed it that way, I realized that animals are committing these sins way better than humans could.

The conclusion I draw is that you can’t use nature as an excuse, because nature will excuse anything. By saying you’re acting “naturally,” you can justify fist fights, sexual aggression, war—any terrible thing, really. But the human ability to overcome what’s “natural” is our big strength, and I hope that gaining insight on where our instincts come from will help us overcome them.

Quartz: And what are some of those insights?

Riskin: In business—just like in nature—it’s dog eat dog, but not dog eat cat. People are always surprised that animals are mostly in competition with their own species. But a zebra’s big problem isn’t worrying about lions, it’s other zebras. A male zebra will kick another one’s baby in the head and kill it. And when zebras are running for their lives, they don’t have to be faster than the lion—just the zebra next to them. Our natural instinct is to compete with each other, to ensure the success of us and our offspring. But we have the unique ability to think about others, if we choose.

Quartz: What else can we learn from the way competition works in the natural world?

Riskin: In the chapter about greed, I talk about an island called Gough in the South Atlantic. It’s paradise, and all these seabirds lay their eggs there. There were no predators, and for lots of species it’s become the only place that egg laying occurs, because they can just drop them and leave.

But around 200 years ago, sailors accidentally left some mice on Gough. They’ve evolved very rapidly to be twice or three times their original size, and they just gorge themselves on eggs and defenseless chicks.

What humans should see in this is that the mice are all competing with each other for meat, just trying to get as much as possible. Soon, they’re going to wipe out the seabirds, and they’ll all be screwed. The mice don’t see this coming, because they’re mice. But we’re doing the same thing with our resources, and we don’t have any excuse to act so stupid. This plays out over and over in nature: There’s no “mother,” and evolution isn’t planning ahead. But we don’t have to be constrained by that.

Quartz: So a totally natural world isn’t really a place we want to live then, is it?

Riskin: People need to ask questions about what’s being marketed to them as “natural.” You get this image of nature—everything is nice, a forest with no hornets, a pond with no leeches—oh, and by the way, the shampoo we make fits into this perfect world we’ve painted. This way of giving birth is more natural, this way of farming is more natural. In reality, nature isn’t a bad place, but bad things happen there. You don’t actually want to live in a world governed by natural law.

There’s this tendency to distrust scientists for making things that don’t fit into that picture of what natural means. There’s this belief that they’re trying to do terrible things, that they’ve got secret agendas. But take genetically modified organisms in agriculture, for example: I’m all for them. Scientists are just trying to find ways to feed the nine billion people that will be on our planet in the near future. Guess what, no form of agriculture is natural, and we’re not going to feed that many people by foraging for food. Scientists making GMOs are just using the same process we’ve always used to breed plants. This isn’t some evil thing, it’s just a faster version of an already unnatural process. If there’s anything scary about GMOs, it’s the legal issues—that a corporation could patent crops—not scientific ones.

But my book isn’t just about realizing that “natural” isn’t always best. My thing about nature is that I love the dirty stuff. I’d pick Game of Thrones over Cinderella any day. When you go with the idea that nature is this calm, gentle place, I think you miss out on the best parts. The really heinous things, that’s where you find the most beauty. Show me a beautiful bird with a mite feeding on it, and it’s the mite I want to see.

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