RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- In a time when we worry about bird flu and contaminated spinach, Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at UC Riverside, offers a fresh perspective on disease and the role it plays in our lives. Her new book, Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are (Harcourt, 2007), argues that disease is not always our foe; it can be a vital partner and friend.
"Disease can be natural, normal, and sometimes even essential," said Zuk, a professor of biology. "Certainly the experience of being sick isnt pleasant, and of course illness causes a lot of harm, but we and all other living things evolved with disease, and if you take it away, there are unforeseen consequences."
In the book, Zuk explains how disease influences everything in our lives, from the evolution of two sexes, to our personalities, to how we choose our mate. It also answers questions such as: Why do men die younger than women? Why do we and lots of other animals get sexually transmitted diseases? Why do we have sex at all, rather than simply splitting off copies of ourselves like certain geckoes? And how is our obsession with cleanliness making us sicker?
She offers in her book the example of children who grow up with antibacterial products from soap to cutting boards and computer keyboards, and sanitary wipes for grocery cart handles. "They run the risk of chronic health problems like asthma and allergies," she said.
According to Zuk, the role of disease, once seen as a whole, is not always scary. "Disease is like the constant companion humans have had since the beginning of time, evolving right along with us, shaping us as much as we shape it," she said. "We need disease to function."