Parasites Are Us


Illustrations by Jason Holley
How biological invaders challenge our idea of self and other.

By Robert V. Levine | NAUTILUS

Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. His research on population and evolutionary genetics has been widely published in professional and trade journals and his 2009 book, Why Evolution Is True, established him as a leading force in the study of evolution. Jerry is also an internationally famous defender of evolution against proponents of creationism and intelligent design. He is a highly respected scientist.

This, however, is a more personal story about Coyne. It goes back to 1973, when he was a mere 24-year-old graduate student at Harvard. As he moved through the program, Coyne was becoming well versed in the intellectual tools of his trade—genetics, evolutionary logic, research methods, and the like. But when it came to real-life contact with nature, his experience was pretty much “limited to unexciting fruit flies crawling feebly around food-filled glass tubes.”1 He was even more frustrated working at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. This was the same museum that was founded by the great Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, under the guiding philosophy to “study nature, not books.” But, aside from fruit flies in a sterile lab, the only nature Coyne was seeing were stuffed mammals in a display case on his way to the Pepsi machine. When given the opportunity to take a summer field course in tropical ecology in Costa Rica, Coyne didn’t hesitate. He never imagined how close to nature he would get.

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