A number of articles lately mention the discovery of a ‘zombie-ant’ fungus in Brazil, explaining how this fungus attacks and takes over the bodies of ants, turning them into spore factories.
The fungus assaults with a subtle, humble move: having its spores ingested by an ant. These spores infect the ant’s brain, then the whole organism, causing it to behave strangely, compelling it to rest under a leaf, or on a stem, where temperature and light conditions are ambient for spore production. The ant bites into the vegetation. (This move is called the death grip, and it’s the last thing the ant does.) It dies on the spot and the fungus takes over, replicating itself inside the carcass, growing a shoot through the top of the head, through which it disseminates its spores into the air.
There you have it. Diabolical takeover and reproduction, the stuff of sci-fi horror films. Zombies in the making, fungal and spore-driven and deadly to everything around them.
The zombie-fungus in question is called the Cordyceps. There are various types of it, in South America as well as Africa, all of them working in similar ways.
The Cordyceps manner of reproduction may be disturbing, but it offers valuable wisdom on life at large. From organized religion to ideological fanaticism, to witch hunts and inquisitions, to the rampant pace of development at the expense of nature and equilibrium, the Cordyceps offers insight on how these phenomena take place, how ideas get out of hand.
For example, there are people who deem individuality and progress a fungal infection that tricks humans to stray from their natural course, causing them to breed more of the same in an ever-growing, diabolical expansion of rampant development.
In other words, our modern way of life is taking over, turning us into zombie consumers.
Another deadly zombie infection of human proportions is collectivism. In collectivist situations, individuals suffer groupthink and fanaticism, turning into compliant automatons, giving rise to monstrosities like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, and to tragedies like the Holocaust, the Holy Inquisition, and Jihad. In the name of creeds or gods that are holier than anything else, that tolerate no dissent, that dictate the course people must take, what they should think, how they ought to feel.
There are others who would steer clear of the socio-political arena and stick to science, focusing on diseases such as cancer. This diabolical self-replicating cell, the tumor cell, perpetuates itself by taking over the surrounding cells, turning them into cancer, spreading all over an organism, destroying biology en masse. It doesn’t have a stem, per se, to spread its spores, meaning that to spread from host to host it has to be creative, compelling humans to build factories and plants and all kinds of machines and products that shoot cancer-causing pollutants and toxins into the ground, water and air, through their vents, shoots and pipes, aiding the proliferation of cancer cells at large.
Does the example go too far? Maybe. It’s a crazy idea to blame pollution to the diseases it causes – as if the disease finds a way to make humans behave in a way that causes pollution that causes more disease – but so is the world we live in, crazy.
Yes, I’ll never look at factory chimneys the same way again, these arcane snouts of creeping pathogenic intelligence.
It’s a disturbing worldview, but so’s acquiescence. Leaving things be for the sake of comfort isn’t such a good idea. Let’s mess with our perceptions, find ways to break free from the spells that bind us.
Bottom line: zombie-fication is an ingenious way of replication. Ruthless and efficient, it’s the stuff of horror legend, at least in the case of ants, and not too shabby where humanity is concerned, almost poetic in irony.
Nevertheless, zombie-fication is doomed to fail. Its model isn’t sustainable – yes, as simple as that. The process relies on wanton reproduction at the expense of its surroundings and hosts. It takes nothing into account, save its growth. The zombie hijacks an organism, infecting the surroundings to the point of collapse. The pathogen and its vectors are unable to accommodate the future. If they’re not weeded out by resistance, or some kind of treatment, they take over completely, killing everything, including themselves, paving the way for a world without them.
It’s a dire outcome. We don’t care about life down the line, if it excludes us. We want to survive and grow, to perpetuate ourselves. The future holds meaning for us when it includes us and/or our offspring.
Where does that leave us? Fighting pathogens – microbial, conceptual, organizational, ideological, systemic – that grow too strong, too fast.
What these pathogens are, how they work and how to contain them, is up for debate, and not this article’s place to say. It depends on where you stand and what you stand for.
If you’re Earth, for example, you’re focused on humanity, which you’re dying to get rid of.
The irony, heavy as ever!