Monday, February 25, 2013

Reflections On The Common Louse

And other parasites. If you haven’t already done so, do go read Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser. He was a bacteriologist who helped develop the typhus vaccine. He was also a brilliant writer. The book is about the influence of typhus on human history, but the good doctor’s wise and witty digressions are the main source of the work’s appeal. It qualifies as literature. Here are a few choice samples.
The important point is that infectious disease is merely a disagreeable instance of a widely prevalent tendency of all living creatures to save themselves the bother of building, by their own efforts, the things they require. Whenever they find it possible to take advantage of the constructive labor of others, this is the direction of the least resistance. The plant does the work with its roots and its green leaves. The cow eats the plant. Man eats both of them, and bacteria (or investment bankers) eat the man.
This perspective is telling in light of the news that the nation’s largest banks receive $83 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies, which very likely keeps them afloat. Why bother to produce when it is more profitable to be a parasite? It is the path of least resistance.

Zinsser expands on this theme when discussing the evolutionary progress of common head lice:
It is likely from evidence that, somewhere in the legendary past of louse history, an offspring of a free-living form not unlike our book louse found that life could be infinitely simplified if, instead of having to grub for food in straw, under tree barks, in moss or lichen, in decaying cereals and vegetables, it could attach itself to some food supplying host, and sit tight. … In a manner, therefore, by adapting itself to parasitism, the louse has attained the ideal of bourgeois civilization, though its methods are more direct than those of business or banking, and its source of nourishment is not its own species.
One might argue that since Dr. Zinsser’s day, business and banking methods have become that direct, but this is a minor quibble. However, Dr. Zinsser does take care to point out that successful parasites don’t kill their hosts, otherwise they die as well. The tin horn Randians at Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital haven’t figured that out yet.

Dr. Zinsser took an amusingly dim view of the reigning literati of his day (the 1930s). The following is from a footnote about the delayed sexual development of lice.
Nature has provided that the nymph — that is, what may be called the high-school or flapper age of the louse — is not yet possessed of sexual organs. These do not appear until the fully adult form develops, and reproduction is thus postponed until a responsible age is reached. Adolescent Bohemianism, “living oneself out,” “self-expression,” and so forth, never get beyond the D.H. Lawrence stage among the younger set. How much physical hardship and moral confusion could be avoided if a similar arrangement among us could postpone sexual maturity until stimulated by an internal secretion from the fully established intellectual and moral convolutions of the brain! The loss of copy for Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and others would be amply compensated for by gains in other directions.
Not many contemporary scientists would reference D.H. Lawrence or Theodore Dreiser in a footnote about the sexual development of head lice, or any other subject, for that matter. Not many contemporary writers would either. Dr. Zinsser was clearly working in a different intellectual landscape that the one that exists today.

Rats, Lice and History cost me one dollar at a used book store. I read it on Sunday. Funny, reading about lice was far more elevating than listening to pundits talk about the sequester. It was somehow cleaner and more edifying. It didn’t make me wince like Meet the Press or This Week with George Stephanopoulos always do. Draw your own conclusions.

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