I’m not talking about the stuff they come up with for horror movies and whatnot. Or aliens from outer space. We have plenty of real-life scary monsters here in the real world. There’s a fungus out there that inhabits the body of an ant and controls the creature’s movements. The fungus makes the ant climb up on the underside of a leaf and grab hold with its mouth. Then the ant dies and the fungus puts out its fruiting body and sends out its spores so it can infect another poor ant. They call it zombie ant fungus (Ophiocordyceps spp.).
Turns out the fungus secretes chemicals that over-ride the ant’s brain, thus enslaving it. A fungus doesn’t have a brain. An ant does. Brains are supposed to give a creature an advantage! Imagine if trees, for example, could infect you when you were picnicking in the park and make you do their bidding. Turn you into a seed storage vessel and make you go plant yourself and so give birth to the next generation of trees. Your demise does not have to be plotted, it just requires the right cocktail.
I find this a lot scarier than say an alligator, or a lion, or even Godzilla. It’s creepy. Insidious. The mindless churning of enzymes and proteins and organic acids and all of them oozing into thoroughly unsuspecting brains. At what point does your mind go? Would you be aware of your slow, inexorable end? Or would it be like a switch, one day sentient and one day not? I don’t know if an ant is sentient or not, but it is still a complex living thing. And I don’t think more complex brains are less vulnerable. I suspect much of the biochemistry is the same or pretty close.
Perhaps they’ll grow the fungi in labs and feed them ant brains and extract the mind-control goodies and sell them to evil governments. Or maybe they’ll get some good drugs out of it, and by that I mean therapeutic drugs to treat mental illnesses. Although it sounds ripe for recreational drugs as well, lots of such things lead to zombie-like states. The various fungi could evolve into bigger and more bad-ass versions of themselves and large mammals will suddenly become their targets. We’ll have to get inoculated against them and not stand too close to toadstools.
Is the mind just a by-product of the brain? Is the particular collection of structures and tissues and the chemicals that make them up responsible for producing our self-awareness? Or is the mind some transcendent phenomenon, that is, does it exist independently of its holding tank? One of the staples of sci-fi is this idea that consciousness is transferable, it can be extracted from its biological setting and infused into a computer memory bank or into another being. But maybe the conscious mind is just something that happens when there is sufficient cellular complexity. Its basis is entirely physical.
If so then these zombie fungi are the future. I used to think cockroaches would win the evolutionary battle and outlive all the other creatures. But now I’m not so sure they are the fittest. Fungi are chemical factories and no matter how sophisticated your brain is there are probably a few relatively simple chemicals out there that can render you helpless. I suppose it will behoove us to evolve internal chemical defenses against these things. Or fight the fungi with other fungi, evolve a commensal relationship with species that secrete the antidote to the zombifying chemicals. I think that might be tough on our own, we don’t reproduce fast enough, especially compared to the so-called lower species. Time to put the genetic engineers to work.
Plants of course are also masters of chemical warfare. Eat me and die. Or grow near me and I’ll poison you. Curare, for example, is an alkaloid found in tropical plants. Human hunters prepared it for use on darts or arrows to paralyze and kill their prey. It’s not toxic if ingested and doesn’t poison the meat, it has to enter the bloodstream. But it takes control of the poor creatures nonetheless and they die from asphyxiation as it relaxes respiratory muscles and prevents them from contracting.
Just because we are smarter than the plants and the fungi doesn’t mean they can’t kick our asses, brains or no brains. So stay alert out there, my friends, there are lots of scary monsters lurking.