The Enlightened Parasite

parasite-webIt was dinnertime as Wolf and his intestinal companion Hookworm sat down to eat And it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to be an entirely comfortable meal for the wolf. For every bite he took, the hookworm took six, which seemed indiscrete and completely inappropriate to Wolf since after all, he was the host.

Dining etiquette! A subject negotiated and loudly discussed ever since amoebas began enveloping bacteria.

“Perhaps I eat a little more voraciously than you,” spouted the hookworm between mouthfuls, “but doesn’t that just make me more fit to survive? Competition is—pardon the expression—the lifeblood of evolution. Survival of the fittest and all that.”

“Ahh, but there are two parameters to survival,” rejoined Wolf, swallowing quickly. “Competition and cooperation. Darwin spoke of ‘descent with modification,’ not the dominance of the most aggressive! Don’t you see?”

But Hookworm was blind (like all hookworms), and didn’t see at all. “We parasites are very cooperative!” he insisted. “I begrudge no one a part of my meal. As a matter of fact I’ve invited a few friends over for dinner tomorrow night—no imposition I hope?”

Wolf experienced a very real sinking feeling but continued to make his point. “I have ancestors—now extinct—who hunted for sport,” he sputtered. “They were such successful hunters that they killed off all prey within their ecosystem. Nature despises abuses of that sort!”

Swirling red fluid in his glass, Hookworm downed another mouthful of his host’s best. “Consider the myriad relationships possible within this grand biosphere,” he mused. “Fungi in symbiotic union with algae form lichen; or the commensal situation where a whale might unknowingly help relocate barnacles across an ocean at no cost to himself; or the parasitic arrangement we have here…

“All these relationships are equivalent in the larger picture,” continued the inimical Hookworm. “From the top of the food chain on down to the bottom, every relationship is essentially exploitative. Are you not just a special sort of parasite upon those creatures you hunt, upon others of your own species, even upon your own mother as you grew in her womb? Why deny our nature?!”

But the Wolf countered. “Aren’t all those relationships essentially variations on cooperation also? What of the common ancestor we share with the cooperative bee, or the symbiotic balance achieved by the benign parasites of the digestive tracts? It’s a choice! What we were meant to be versus what we might yet become. Nature versus nurture: it always comes down to that doesn’t it?”

The hookworm was unmoved and just leaned back in his chair, dabbing dinner’s remnants from the corner of his mouth with his white napkin.

Shifting uncomfortably in his chair the distraught wolf scowled. “If nothing else, self-interest should redirect your consideration of our relationship! Eating me into extinction is not only poor manners, it’s unenlightened! A fully realized parasite would not kill its host.”

Hookworm gazed blindly into the distance, commenting vacantly, “Food for thought…” But in truth, the satiated parasite was only thinking of where he might find his next meal.