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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Ethology

Plight of the Living Dead What Real-Life Zombies Reveal About Our World - and Ourselves

Popular Science
By: Matt Simon(Author)
237 pages, no illustrations
A carnival of the grotesque, Plight of the Living Dead made our catalogue editor laugh, shiver, and pray he will never reincarnate as an insect.
Plight of the Living Dead
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  • Plight of the Living Dead ISBN: 9780143131410 Paperback Oct 2018 In stock
Price: £19.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles Recommended titles

About this book

Zombieism isn't just the stuff of movies and TV shows like The Walking Dead. It's real, and it's happening in the word around us, from wasps and worms, to dogs and moose – and even humans. In Plight of the Living Dead, science journalist Matt Simon documents his journey through the bizarre evolutionary history of mind control. Along the way, he visits a lab where scientists infect ants with zombifying fungi, joins the search for kamikaze crickets in the hills of New Mexico, and travels to Israel to meet the wasp that stings cockroaches in the brain before leading them to their doom.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A carnival of the grotesque
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 1 Feb 2019 Written for Paperback

    Being turned into a zombie is not something most of us worry about. Sure, some of us consider humans metaphorical zombies, controlled by mass media / the government / smartphone addiction / my pet hamster / ________ (fill in your own favourite 21st-century angst here). All I can say after reading Matt Simon’s book is that I am glad that I am not an insect. In turns gruesome and hilarious, Plight of the Living Dead is a carnival of the many grotesque ways that parasites can control their hosts. Something we do not have to worry about... or do we?

    When I picked up this book I could not help but think: “Hang on, didn’t he just write a book about this?” The title of Simon’s previous book< The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar, indeed seems to suggest so. And although zombies featured in that book, it is more a collection of stories about evolution’s many marvels. The zombie story has plenty of mileage, however, so he dug deeper for this book.

    In eleven witty and short chapters, Simon gives a whirlwind tour of the many bizarre parasites that affect especially insects. If the idea of having lice or worms already freaks you out, how about the jewel wasp that stings a cockroach in its brain to pacify it, after which it lays an egg on its belly? The wasp larva that crawls out will slowly consume the cockroach alive, hollowing it out bit by bit. The hardened Attenborough veteran might guffaw at this: larvae devouring their living hosts has become a staple of nature documentaries, but that is only the start of it...

    How about fungi that slowly take over the host’s body, splitting apart muscle and nerve tissue as they go? The fungus Ophiocordyceps made headlines some time ago when pictures of dead ants with giant fungal stalks growing out of their heads made the rounds on the internet. Some hosts even become so unlucky as to be infected by multiple parasites, each having their own agenda. Others not only kill their host, but then wear their dead bodies as a sort of armour. Still others will change the sex of their host, or sterilize them.

    If the parasite needs to complete its lifecycle in another organism, say a bird, you can count on it changing its host into a suicidal creature that wil make sure to be eaten by that bird. And then there are the parasites that infect colonies of social insects and manipulate not just their host, but other colony members as well, sometimes turning sister against sister in an orgy of bloodshed. There seems to be no end to the cruel and inventive ways in which parasites will exploit and manipulate their hosts. We might not have worms in our eyeballs, fungi growing up our brains, or giant larvae slowly eating our organs to then burst out of our chests. However. As also mentioned by Dunn when shortly discussing Toxoplasma gondii (a parasite of cats), we humans are not exempt (see Never Home Alone).

    In the last few chapters, Simon puts forth the claim that the many forms of mind control and neurobiological manipulation by parasites shows that free will is an illusion. Brains are governed by rules that parasites have evolved to ruthlessly exploit. Some readers might disagree, but I think it is a very interesting idea he puts out there.

    Although parasite-host manipulation is a serious topic of study in biology (see reference works such as Parasites and the Behavior of Animals or Evolutionary Ecology of Parasites), it is also one of those outlandish topics that lends itself perfectly for popular science books. Simon’s writing is witty:

    “Cuvier is most celebrated for breaking it to the world that God really has it out for some critters. The idea of extinction was tough for folks in the 1700s to comprehend, what with the higher power being a supposedly decent guy” (p. 152)

    If that kind of irreverence amuses you (and it amuses me), you are guaranteed to have a good laugh reading this book. Plight of the Living Dead is one of those incredibly absorbing books that manages to horrify and entertain in equal measure.
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Matt Simon is a science writer at Wired magazine, where he specializes in zoology, particularly of the bizarre variety, and the author of The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar. He is one of just a handful of humans to witness the fabled mating ritual of the axolotl salamander. He lives in San Francisco.

Popular Science
By: Matt Simon(Author)
237 pages, no illustrations
A carnival of the grotesque, Plight of the Living Dead made our catalogue editor laugh, shiver, and pray he will never reincarnate as an insect.
Media reviews

"This book is fantastic! The sci-fi stories you've read barely hold a candle to the gruesome ways in which parasites manipulate their hosts in real life. This book will make your skin crawl with some of the best examples of manipulation we've encountered, fascinate you with what we know about how parasites achieve these amazing feats of control, and leave you wondering what this all means for the nature of free will. You'll be thinking about this book long after you're done reading it."
– Kelly Weinersmith, New York Times bestselling coauthor of Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything

"Matt Simon is, to borrow his term, a zombifier: Plight of the Living Dead will infect your brain, forcing you to spout a stream of bizarre facts – about fat-sucking worms, muscle-eating fungi, brain-stabbing wasps – until your friends buy the book for themselves, and the chain of infection continues." 
– Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig

"A gruesome, fascinating, and somehow hilarious exploration of the most devious, mind-altering tactics of the bug wars. I found myself cringing, laughing, learning, but most of all thankful I'm not an ant."
– Cody Cassidy, author of And Then You're Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling over Niagara

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