But Bishop! My Cat’s Parasite Made Me Do it!

It looks like the zombie apocalypse has started. We have seen its effect in the insect world for many years—from fungi that drive ants to the highest plant available, so that its head can explode in a shower of fungal spores that ride the wind to their next anty victim, to amoebae that make insects freeze in place at the top of blade of grass so they can more likely be consumed by their preferred bovine host.

But it looks like the zombification of humans has been going on for some time. It might be that the following statement must be appended to many of our personal journals, “I wanted to act differently. I wanted to be circumspect and demure, but I caught a bug that made me reckless and thoughtless. You thought I was acting of my own free will? No I was under the influence of a cat parasite.”

An increasing body of evidence coming in from a number of scientific studies is implicating a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii in influencing human behavior and may be responsible for up to 75% of the cases of schizophrenia (read this write-up in Atlantic Monthly for details on this frightening new finding). Moreover, the beast may be influencing you to act in ways you would have never done otherwise. It even might be causing more accidents than drunk driving.

A little background. In rats, the pest makes them reckless around cats and even causes them to find the smell of cat urine an aphrodisiac. Hence the rats find themselves being placed into a cat’s path more often. It looks like the micro Dr. Moreau, has joined with cats in a mutually beneficial arrangement—host me awhile and I’ll bring you enough rodents to satiate your every feline culinary wish.

However, it looks like this parasite’s rat commandeering machinery has some accidental effects on us. It crawls up into our brains and does some mischief. In humans, males tend to become more gregarious and less fearful in social situations. In females the opposite occurs (it also makes them more incline to be snazzy dressers). But the behavioral changes it causes in humans are real and measurable. The Atlantic Monthly article also shows more evidence that other aspects of our behavior may be driven by our parasites including everything from sex drive to a desire for conversation.

Free agency is at the heart of our understanding of mortality. And by free agency we often mean the freedom to act otherwise. Once again the biological world flexes its muscle in determining who we are and the way we act.

Bishops may have to start asking, “Was that you or your parasite?”

To me this is not controversial. We know we are physical beings and are in real ways an emergence from genes, prenatal environment, cultural embedding and now, apparently, our parasites. In short, we are already zombies.

Does this do away with free agency? No. The academic debates about free agency are endless. In part, because from a secular perspective it is an ascientfic question. If it exists, it is rooted in consciousness, the mysterious aspect of all our minds that science may have many correlates, but no explanation. Same from a LDS perspective, we have no idea, not even a hint how the spirit and body are linked. But we know that biology is a big player in how that relationship falls out (just look at an Alzheimer patient if you don’t believe it). Biology mightily complexifies the question about who we are. It also makes me want to even more seriously take the injunction to “Judge not.” What if that person who seems such a disaster is really the victim of having played in a sandbox with some cat scat in it? We often want the actions of others to be a reflection of some sort of pure agency in which they are responsible for who they are. But we are all a collection of accidents both of birth and the events of this earthly existence.

So next time you are tempted to judge someone say to yourself, “But for a bit of luck, I could have played in that sandbox.”

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6 comments to But Bishop! My Cat’s Parasite Made Me Do it!

  • Andrea Rediske

    Brilliant!

  • Don Breakwell

    Hail to the microbes, global conquerors!

  • Last Lemming

    In humans, males tend to become more gregarious and less fearful in social situations.

    I may be the most parasite-free person on the face of the earth. Yay me! (And I had cats growing up, too.)

  • The cynic in me wonders if this worked, and the scientists were able to talk their way out of having to change the litter box.

  • You can add lead poisoning and cancer to your list. I don’t know a whole lot about it, but there is apparently a serious argument to be made that in country after country, reduction in violent crime can be linked to restrictions on lead exposure. As to cancer, an anecdote: some of my relatives knew a man that had extra-marital affairs, and although he was sorry to have hurt his wife, he didn’t feel any real remorse about it. Turns out he had a brain tumor. Unfortunately, I don’t remember how the story ended, but the connection is certainly suggestive.

    As for free will, I keep meaning to get deeper into this topic, but I keep finding it too dry and daunting. At any rate, I don’t see how invoking a spirit, if it’s made of some kind of matter, solves anything for consciousness or free will. Other than upholding tradition, what is the basis for thinking that organized particles of spirit matter do things that regular matter can’t?

  • mellifera

    Somehow made it through years of changing cats’ litterboxes and being the go-to girl for fecal parasite testing at a veterinary hospital without picking up T. gondii. (Serology for toxoplasma is one of the regular tests they give pregnant ladies, so that data’s four years old, close enough.)

    Which brings up an interesting question: is there a relationship between bulletproof immune systems and nerd-hood?

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