Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Under what circumstances would you vote for Sarah Palin for President?

>> Monday, June 13, 2011

Howdy, howdy, howdy! Aaaand we're back for another edition of Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets!

John submits this inquiry:

Under what circumstances would you vote for Sarah Palin for President?

I'm trying to remember if I've ever mentioned around here what really disturbs me, more than anything. It seems like I might have, but maybe I haven't. I was sort of looking through the archives, but what the hell--if this repeats anything, so be it. Have I ever talked about Dicrocoelium dendriticum?

Dicrocoelium dendriticum, from teaching slides at the University of Edinburgh, by Adam Cuerden.

Let me tell you how that thing lives. Its colloquial name is the Lancet liver fluke, and it lives in cattle livers. Makes sense, doesn't it, what with being named "liver fluke"? But that isn't the only place the Lancet liver fluke likes to live, matter-of-fact, livers are only one habitation for the fluke during one part of a somewhat complicated, interesting, and (frankly) terrifying lifestyle. You see, the adult Dicrocoelium live in a sheep liver, eating and fucking, but they quickly get to a point where they want to get the kids out of the house--who doesn't, am I right?--and so the Dicrocoelium eggs are expelled in animal shit. That's not the interesting part. Piles of dung are not, you may be surprised to know, primo real estate as far as liver flukes are concerned; so maybe that doesn't surprise you. But it would seem that snails happen to consider the dung mounds palatable; they eat it, and (along with it) they consume the Dicrocoelium eggs. That isn't the interesting part, either.

The Dicrocoelium eggs hatch in a snail's gut, and this doesn't make the snail too happy, either, so it excretes the encysted Dicrocoelium larvae as quickly as it can in its slime. This is where things start to get interesting. You see, the slime trail happens to be very attractive to ants as a source of moisture and nutrients, so the slime gets consumed by them--along with the Dicrocoelium cysts, which then mature to their next stage. And now things get interesting and disturbing.

You see, what the Dicrocoelium does next is that one of the maturing flukes makes its way to an ant's brain. And it doesn't just live there, no-- it actually takes control of part of the ant's brain and causes the ant to do something very inappropriate for an ant to do: the fluke causes the ant to climb up to the top of a blade of grass and clamp onto the grass with its mandibles very tightly and just sit there, sit, sit, sit. And the ant stays clamped to the tip of the grass blade until one of two things happens: (1) the ant is eaten by a grazing animal, giving Dicrocoelium a chance to get into a nice, lovely animal liver so it can get to some nice eating and fucking (and so the joyous circle of life comes full round again, hurrah!) or (2) the sun comes up. You see, if the ant were to stay on the end of the blade of grass all day, it would bake, and I do not mean in the sense that certain persons partaking in another kind of grass mean "bake", no, I mean that the ant would broil under the hot sun and there would go the fluke's transportation system. So what the Lancet liver fluke does when the temperature rises is it returns the ant to its regularly scheduled programming, letting it do ant things like lapping up snail slime, investigating picnic baskets and abandoned soda cans, serving the queen, et cetera and then when it gets cool enough again to do some waiting-to-be-eaten, the fluke hijacks the ant's brain and clamps it to a leaf.

(In fact-checking myself with Wikipedia, I was reminded that The Oatmeal did a wonderful educational comic depicting the above events and characterizing them as "awesome". Also, The Oatmeal dubs Dicrocoelium "Captain Higgins" because that's easier to say than "Dicrocoelium", a word I wouldn't even manage to type correctly all these times if I wasn't cheating with the copy'n'paste.)

I first heard of Dicrocoelium years and years ago--possibly in high school or maybe earlier--and it filled me with a special horror. Here's a creature that can get inside something's brain--granted, it's just an ant brain, and there isn't much to an ant brain--and makes the ant do terrible things to itself. And of course the ant doesn't know any better, does it? It presumably thinks, to the extent it's even capable of thinking, "Hrm, think I'll go climb that blade of grass over there and stay on the end of it for several hours until something eats me, yes, that sounds like exactly what I'll do." And then it just sits there. And the fluke--which has a nervous system even simpler than the ant's, actually--"knows" what to do to maximize the ant's chance of being devoured, holy shit.

I mean, I find the whole idea horrifying. What if there was some kind of microorganism that could infect you and change your behavior, get you to do something reckless and stupid and suicidal and just incomprehensible from the perspective of what's good for yourself, and have you thinking it was your own idea? I don't know about you, but my brain is about the only thing I have going for me; the idea of losing my faculties to something like Alzheimer's is terrifying enough--but to have my faculties completely subverted?

And this is where you can feel free to mention Toxoplasma gondii, if you'd like.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about a parasitic protozoan that likes to live in cats. If you've heard of toxoplasmosis, yep, this is the critter that causes it. It can cause brain damage and blindness, particularly in children and people with immune system deficiencies. But that's not the most fucked-up part. The fucked up part is what Toxoplasma gondii does to rodents.

See, a member of Rodentia in his or her natural state, healthy and free, has a finely-tuned sensibility of what is good for it or what's bad for it. And one of the things that's bad for a rodent, as any good fan of Tom And Jerry cartoons knows, is a cat. Like the song says, cats love to eat them mousies, bite they little heads off and nibble on they tiny feet. So a rat or a mouse will stay the hell away from a cat, of course, or even an indicator of one, like feline spoor.

Unless he's been infected by Toxoplasma gondii. Do you know what a mouse with a brain full of eensie-weensie Toxoplasma gondii protozoans likes more than anything in the whole wide world?

Cat piss.

Infect a mouse with Toxoplasma and what he wants more than anything is to hang out where he can get himself a snootful of cat wee. Which is not a healthy behavior, you may already see, because places where there's a lot of cat wee--litterboxes, f'r'instance, or my friend Nate's computer that time he left it over at a friend's house--are places where there's usually a traffic of cats, cats who want to eat the mousies' little feet along with any other mouseparts they'd like to upchuck onto a white carpet or expensive antique comforter later in the afternoon. Toxoplasma makes the mouse suicidal, just like the Dicrocoelium-infested ant.

Thank goodness we're talking about rats and ants, right?

Except we aren't, probably. It turns out that some scientists think toxoplasmosis may not only play a role in explaining the incidence of some mental illnesses, but may also play a role in law and culture. Oi.

Now, the thing about this is: Toxoplasma, specifically, may or may not play such a profound role in human affairs, but the idea that some microorganism might isn't really that far-fetched. If you concede that human behavior on an individual scale is shaped by what's happening organically inside the brain (which you pretty much have to) and concede that critters from the scale of viruses to the scale of flatworms might have an effect on those organic processes, it's almost hard to imagine that the behavior of groups of individuals isn't being shaped to some degree by whatever's infecting their heads--the only question might be how much of what we are and do is little more than the product of wee animalcules trying to get upriver to spawn.

Gods only know what those things could make us do.

And that, John, answers your question.


Nathan Monday, June 13, 2011 at 11:36:00 PM EDT  

Fucking Brilliant.

(And no...I don't want to know how it is you happen to know some of the stuff you know, you sick bastard, you!)

Phiala Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 9:51:00 AM EDT  


I wonder if we can require blood tests for Palin supporters.

David Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 11:48:00 AM EDT  

Well that certainly explains a lot, doesn't it?

It also suggests that Palin supporters might be cured, which I find reassuring.

John the Scientist Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 12:56:00 PM EDT  

That was pretty damn good. I was expecting something totally different. But this was good.

Eric Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 1:45:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, everybody. And I'm glad I could surprise you, John.

Tom Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 2:58:00 PM EDT  

So! Dixoplasmosis Palinii?

Bus station bathrooms? Maybe revival tents? Now that we know, I'm sure we could trace the vector. They could be cured, and we could prevent re-infection.

Dana Teel Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 12:38:00 PM EDT  

I'm afraid some of my friends on FB didn't appreciate my link to your blog. They seem to think I was saying that Tea Party members have been taken over by parasites. I don't know where they get these ideas. I think some of them would vote for Sarah even without the influence of an invading parasite; a position I find unfathomable. Like your blog Eric, came here from Jim’s blog over at Stonekettle Station.

Eric Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 1:04:00 PM EDT  

Welcome, Dana! I hope you like what you find over here.

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