Monday, April 14, 2003

Animals of the Month - leech on life

Animals of the Month – leech on life

Jan 18, 2003

I should probably call this feature semi-annual animal, since I don't do it monthly. I also considered as a possible subtitle: I want to get inside your head – and other places. In any case, it's time to get back to nature.

The creatures we're dealing with are the ones that make us wonder how they might be evidence of God's goodness. While reading Genesis, did you happen to notice that after God "brought forth" this and "created" that, He "saw that it was good"? Maybe He got carried away and lost track of all the things He was bringing forth. God, I have a question: just what "good" did You see when You brought forth the tapeworm?

In its outward appearance, life on earth has a shape, pyramidic in form, with lower creatures at the bottom and us at the apex. The order seems obvious, the results inevitable, which to us means intended. Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, paints a picture of man (and all life) as having found his form and place in nature through a process essentially chaotic, random mutations acted upon by the environment. Many of us, even if impressed by the theory but made uncomfortable by the oxymoronic premise at its core (a chaotic process?), and made equally uncomfortable by the Creationism of biblical fundamentalists, welcomed the recent overtures of intelligent design theorists like William Dembski and Stephen Meyer, backed up by Michael Behe's irreducible complexity. But respected (and orthodox) Catholic theologians, like Edward T. Oakes, are made as uncomfortable by ID as you and I are by evolution, not cottoning to the idea of a God who steps in to doodle a design now and then, taking up the slack when Nature drops the rope. I sympathize with Fr. Oakes, because I also have difficulty with a God who'd step in to doodle a tapeworm, or a cell for that matter, if such an interference is not necessary. To confuse us further, we know that God stepped in at some point for, if we are made in His image, we cannot purely be the products of nature. By what standard do we limit the number of His interventions, allowing that He may doodle here but not there?

I'll leave it to Father Oakes and the others to hash out. In the end we hold to our conviction that the system has been guided, though we remain unable to produce the guidance mechanism. Maybe we never will. But if we do, my suspicion is that it will be a triumph of philosophy, not science.

One of my daughters asked at Christmas if I'd seen an installment of Animal Planet called "Eaten Alive," and I replied that indeed I had, and had also taken notes. She thought this rather obsessive. So I asked if she'd watched the whole thing. "Yeah," she said, "I couldn't stop." Yes, horror has its pull.

Here's an example of what she saw: A woman from America, Patricia Rosales, visits Guatemala. When she returns, she begins suffering from a headache, which, after ten days, sends her to the hospital. She is hearing zooming sounds, her head feels like it's going to explode, she sees lights, suffers seizures, her eyes roll back in her head, and she foams at the mouth. She is treated for migraine, but without success. It turns out that her malady is called cystersicosis. She had eaten food contaminated by pork tapeworm eggs, some of which end up in the brain as cysts. Without treatment, her brain would have been eaten up. The cysts can invade other organs and grow to the size of a melon ten inches across, each cyst containing thousands upon thousands of tiny tapeworms.

The tapeworm belongs to a family of parasites known as cestodes (available worldwide, by the way), some of which seem to have been "designed" especially to enhance human misery. They have an awfully complicated life cycle for such an apparently simple creature and, like many parasites, a part of that life cycle is suitably spent in the company of excrement, which dalliance seems to be the key to the animal's continuance. As adults they live in the intestines of humans and some other animals, many of which we are fond of, like dogs and cats. The pork tapeworm seems to have as its target, us. It latches on to our intestinal wall and proceeds to grow segments, called proglottids, each equipped with both male and female organs, thus dispensing with time-consuming reproductive rituals. The adult worm can grow to be quite long, and in the case of the broad or "fish" tapeworm (which also infects man), this length can exceed that of the host's intestine, reaching in exceptional cases up to sixty feet. Of course, the mature proglottids, each packed with 30-40 thousand embryos, are continually breaking off at the end and being voided in the feces, from which, if then eaten by a pig, a spherical larva emerges. It bores through the intestinal wall and is carried through the blood stream to the pig's muscles, where it assumes its next stage, that of the bladder worm or cysticercus, the stage that infected Mrs. Rosales. It stays that way until the pig is eaten by a man, and only then does the adult come out of hiding to pitch camp in the intestine, latching on to the intestinal wall with hooks and absorbing liquid nourishment through its outer membrane, or cuticle. Mrs. Rosales' misfortune was to have come in contact with the parasite at the wrong stage of its life cycle. All that was required was for her to have eaten food prepared by a cook who had not washed his hands after going to the bathroom, or after having come in contact with animal feces or an animal who'd had his nose in it. She must have eaten the proglottis, which then transmogrified into a hexacanth larva, which then bored through her intestinal wall and drifted down the bloodstream to her brain. If she'd simply eaten meat contaminated by the bladder worm stage, she'd have ended up with nothing more than a tapeworm in her gut, which is bad enough. The cuticle of the adult stage is a highly complex structure wonderfully adapted to absorbing liquid food, food that should have been yours. There are many species of tapeworm, and all are able to ruin a man's day in one way or another. It is a most unpleasant creature. Mrs. Rosales, you'll be glad to know, survived, though it was a close call.

Another case was that of an American man who visited Africa. When he returned home, he looked in the mirror one morning to see tiny, thread-like shapes undulating across the whites of his eyes, like a special effect from a Hollywood horror movie. He had been infected by the mosquito-borne larva of a nematode, a roundworm relative of the one that destroys Florida lawns. There are a number of species, all of which cause varying degrees of a condition called filariasis, all of the degrees unpleasant, most debilitating, and several fatal. The worm lives in the lymphatic system and in subcutaneous tissues. The blockage in the lymph system can cause grotesque deformities such as elephantiasis and even swelling of the genitals. If you click on the picture, keep in mind that this is a mild case. You can read more about it here . Sufferers, both men and women, are ostracized by their communities, and treatment usually involves surgery from which the genitals sometimes cannot be saved.

Another American, who was in Borneo for a cross-jungle bike race, started itching on the flight back home. He scratched constantly, even in public, endured months of sleeplessness, and appeared to have varicose veins on various parts of his body. The doctors said dermatitis; the correct diagnosis was creeping nematodes, worms under the skin. Eventually he was able to see them moving. It turns out they should have been in another animal, which I'm sure he would have preferred. Only one species of these filariasis-causing worms is native to the Americas, and that is well to the south of us, so if you like to travel, take mosquito netting and lots of bug spray.

Central and South America are home to quite a few disgustingly "designed" parasites, as a British cameraman found out when he was bitten by a bot fly. He didn't know it, of course. At first he simply noticed a small wound on his stomach that wouldn't heal. The wound slowly got larger, and instead of seeking medical help, he tried treating it himself. First, he put steak on his tummy, and when that didn't work tried petroleum jelly, and finally nail varnish. One day, as he stared at it, the center of the wound began to move. A protuberance rose from the center and waved about, as though seeking attention. Our victim thought it was kind of "neat." He enjoyed watching it, but then there's no longer any accounting these days for what will fix a man's attention. He eventually did the smart thing and had the doctors remove it by surgery, but, reluctant to part with his companion, he keeps the larva preserved to this day in a jar of formaldehyde.

Finally, for I know when enough's enough, we have a story that, were the problem more widespread, might bring the chastity belt back into fashion, for men as well as women. Picture this: a young South American man wades into the river that flows by his village, lowers his colorful shorts, and commences to urinate. As he waits idly for this bodily function to complete itself, he suddenly observes a most amazing and horrifying thing: a tiny, nearly transparent fish leaps from the water and follows the stream of urine right into the man's penis. He grabs for the fish's tail but it is slippery and quickly inserts itself. He can see only the tip of the tail hanging out, but when he pulls on it, the pain is so excruciating that he must desist.

This is the dreaded candiru, a parasitic species of South American catfish formerly thought to be the work of legend, another myth spread by animistic Indians, but alas, if only they were the fabricators we take them to be. For the young man's pain does not cease with his release of the fish's tail, but is only just beginning. Inside him, the fish has spread its backward-pointing gill spines like an umbrella, lodging it firmly in place. Pulling on the tail only tears viciously at the young man's tender tissues. There are rumors that many in the past have undergone penectomy, so unendurable is the agony the fish is causing. For what it does is to gnaw through the membranes to get at the blood beneath. The penectomy reports are unconfirmed but not unimaginable, no more so than the belief that the fish was real and not a chimera. Personally, when it comes to this little arrow of evil, I'd as soon take on a pack of piranha. (Women, by the way, their openings being larger, are more likely to be attacked.) Our young man, however, underwent the first confirmed surgical removal of a candiru from a human penis. There are "photos, a videotape of the procedure, medical reports and, of course, the fish."

The examples cited do not even approach exhaustion of the subject. We have not touched upon the thousands of bacterial, viral, protozoan, fungal, insect, and even mammalian parasites – think vampire bat – nor am I certain I have conveyed the enormity of the problem presented by the parasites of the worm family which plague many millions of people around the world, especially in the tropical and subtropical areas. If you live in the United States your odds are much better, unless you're the type who likes to go on safari, in which case you'd better know a lot about the place you're headed, or unless you live in that large area surrounding the Great Lakes where the fish tapeworm still holds its own.

Every living thing must eat to live, but the difference in these spawn of our nightmares is that they can't just take a bite and go away, or kill you and be done with it. They have to hang on for dear life, to yours for theirs, subsisting on the irony that their hosts' behavior is the very thing responsible for their own perpetuation. They have insinuated themselves into the sanguineous and secretive alleyways – the blood, the feces, the urine – of the natural dispensation, riding the dark currents of life while exhibiting no variety of behavior - no courage, nobility, or cleverness – just latching on and sucking dry. They seem like the torn and cast-off viral remnants, the excrescences, of the real thing we call life, and yet they are undoubtedly alive, and thrive daily in over the half the humans on the planet.

I suppose they're just another kind of predator. If we looked through Spinoza's window and believed that "nothing is good or evil except insofar as the mind is affected by it," we might be able to step back and admire their narrowness of focus as an adaptive perfection. If we were not their prey, we might not be so quick to ascribe evil to a thing not capable of it. A Christian, of course, cannot fellow-travel with Spinoza's premise very far, for the problems are evident in the wording of it. We know there is evil in the world. But he might be right when it comes to the world of nature, that part of it that lies below us. I've sometimes wondered if creatures like these made up some part of the evidence that inspired Manes to concoct his dualistic heresy, that there is the world of the spirit made by God, and of the flesh made by Satan. It's a heresy that keeps popping up now and then, but can't last because any man who's had a mother or been close to a woman knows that the body is good. And I haven't made a decision as to whether God designed the parasites or merely permits them to be. The world isn't going to stop while I decide. Maybe what He designed is an analogy. Just as men can make a hell of life on earth, maybe nature has her parallels as well, though it all seems a bit of a purgatory to me.

I found one and only one bright spot in the whole investigation, evidence that nature too can bring beauty out of ugliness, as God may draw good from evil. This will interest the ladies most, the ones fond of wearing pearls: almost all natural oriental pearls are formed, not by the proverbial grain of sand, but by the oyster laying down pearl to enclose the marine fish tapeworm larva, which has entered and begun irritating the oyster's tissues. I would not call it the pearl of great price, but it should appreciate over time.

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