The FY16 Budget for Humanitarian Development in Review, Pt. 1: Major Initiatives and Multi-Country Programs

With the release of the White House’s FY16 budget request, the priorities of the Obama Administration with regard to the development of democracy, governance, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have come to light; naturally, development work and humanitarian aid projects are reliant upon funding in order to implement their various programs and accomplish their goals. The FY16 budget has thus given analysts much to work with and think about when it comes to deciphering the United States’ interests in the Middle East and North Africa and its commitment to furthering progress in Middle Eastern and North African society. The Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the federal budget and appropriations outlines the allocations of funds to the various actors working within the MENA region to further the realization of humanitarian aims and goals. Accordingly, it reveals some significant insights into the overall nature, scope, capacity, and direction of the American effort to impart meaningful change and produce tangible progress in the status of Middle Eastern civil society, human rights, and development.

This series of blog posts utilizes the Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the FY16 budget to outline the most important and significant aspects of the proposed budget for the United States’ development and humanitarian mission in the MENA region. These posts will discuss the funding and direction given to the United States’ major MENA initiatives, multi-country accounts, and programs; the status of bilateral aid and assistance to countries in the region; and the broader “bigger picture” implications of the foreign assistance and aid budget with regard to the changing nature of Middle Eastern and North African affairs and the Obama Administration’s evolving foreign policy in the Middle East. This first blog post outlines the budgetary allocations requested for the United States’ major multi-country programs – the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the USAID Middle East Regional, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State, the Near East Regional Democracy Program, and the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Middle East Partnership Initiative

The Administration’s FY16 budget requests $70 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a renewal of FY15 funding levels, although policymakers suggest that the actual level of spending may be reduced quite significantly; this reduction in tangible funding may be a strategic decision based on how best to allocate remaining available funds across the Office of Near East Affairs Assistance Coordination’s various programs. Either way, under the FY16 budget request, MEPI is tasked with continuing to support active citizen engagement in government affairs, promoting political competition, supporting political and social freedoms, promoting political competition, and improving the regulatory environment for small and medium enterprises. Up to 8.5$ million has been requested to support MEPI’s Local Grants Program, which provide direct grants and local funding to communities in Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and for its student exchange programs. $10 million is expected to be renewed for MEPI’s funding of scholarships.

Concerns and criticisms have been raised about MEPI’s recent reorganization within the State Department’s bureaucracy, in which it has been placed under the purview of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. As MEPI activities will conform to joint assistance strategies and be complementary to other State Department and USAID bilateral activities, there are fears that MEPI is losing its identity as a strong pro-reform voice. Some raise issue that MEPI’s reorganization will impact its effectiveness as an agile, politically independent assistance tool. In light of these concerns, MEPI’s role will likely evolve moving forward, with a decreasing budget in-line with that of other regional multi-country development accounts and a greater emphasis placed on funding direct local grants to civil society rather than to large international NGOs.

USAID Middle East Regional

The FY16 budget further requests $40 million for USAID Middle East Regional (MER) funding. Middle East Regional is the term used by USAID for its allocation of funds to the MENA region outside of bilateral assistance packages to individual countries; MER funds allow USAID to carry out regional or multi-country programs as well as programs in countries lacking a USAID mission while also complimenting bilateral foreign assistance initiatives. Over the past few years, funding for MER has steadily increased, from $17.7 million in FY13 to $30 million in FY14 and FY15, to $40 million in FY16. Of that $40 million requested for FY16, $1.2 million is requested for “peace and security,” $8 million for the “Governing Justly and Democratically” initiative, and the remaining $30.8 million is for other economic assistance programs and various management expenses. MER funding will further support regional water, health, and gender-based violence programs. Within that allocation of FY16 funds, $20 million is marked for the Office of Technical Services (ME/TS), which informs USAID’s work in the region through needs analyses and assessment; program planning, design, and evaluation; strategic planning; compliance with regulatory requirements; and implementation of USAID Forward reforms. $5 million is designated for continued support to Civil Society Innovation Centers, which seek to develop and enhance the operating space for civil society in the region.

Ultimately, the growth of the MER program and increasing funding for MER gives USAID a source of funds more flexible than those that USAID programs out of bilateral accounts, enabling it to respond and adapt to changes on the ground in a more comprehensive and effective manner. The goals and programming of MER have shifted considerably over the past few years, with a heightened focus on technical support and analysis as well as a broader contribution to GJD funding and support for civil society.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) has long been in the lead within the U.S. government for advancing human rights and democracy, and carries out foreign assistance programs focused on supporting democracy, governance, human rights, and labor. DRL’s focus has long been on providing assistance in conflict zones and other non-permissive environments, in contrast to USAID programming that often requires host government cooperation. $60 million is requested for DRL’s programming budget in the FY16 budget, the same level requested in FY15. $9 million is requested for DRL’s Global Internet Freedom programs, supplemented by $7 million from the Near East Regional Democracy Program and $2 million from the USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. $6 million is also requested for DRL’s rapid response programs, including Lifeline, which provides emergency assistance to civil society organizations; Dignity for All, which supports LGBT activists; Justice Defenders, which supports human rights lawyers; the Protection for Journalists Initiative; and the Global Gender-Based Violence Initiative, which helps survivors of gender-based violence. Lifeline also provides funding for short-term initiatives at the local, regional, and international levels that help civil society organizations fight against regulatory and extralegal barriers to their work.

DRL has positioned itself as an agile, flexible assistance mechanism that is able to quickly respond to events on the ground while working in difficult environments. Significantly, it works with civil society based in Syria and has sustained civil society work in non-permissive environments through its Human Rights Defenders Fund. As more countries in the MENA region become antagonistic in their policies and attitudes toward outside support of civil society, DRL’s continuing work providing such assistance gives it an important leading role in achieving the aims of civil development. That DRL takes on policy mandates to provide assistance on issues seen as controversial or threatening by repressive governments means that it serves a vital role in the advancing of America’s global humanitarian interests.

However, although Congress has continually granted DRL funding greater than that requested by the administration, there has been a steady decline in the level of funding requested specifically for DRL. This, coupled with an increased number of mandates, has put a strain on DRL’s resources and capabilities. DRL has been forced to cobble together the requisite funds to support its various programs; indeed, DRL is responsible for programming as much as $130-140 million each year. Much of its funding must come from sources outside of the federal budget to meet the totals required. Accordingly, closing the gap between DRL’s budget request and its actual budget will be a key step moving forward in regularizing the bureau’s budget and sustaining its ability to conduct its important work.

Near East Regional Democracy Program

The Near East Regional Democracy Program (NERD) was established in 2009 to support democracy and human rights in the MENA region, particularly in Iran. The program focuses primarily on activities that do not require an in-country presence, for programming cannot be conducted inside Iran; among NERD’s programs are support for media, technology, and internet freedoms along with conferences and trainings for Iranian activities that take place outside Iran. NERD funding is not legally required to be spent within Iran, or any other particular country for that matter, although the sentiment of policymakers has held firm that Iran should be NERD’s main area of focus.

The FY16 budget for NERD stands at $30 million, the same amount as in FY15. However, its funding devoted to civil society work is at $21 million, a decrease from the FY12 request of $26 million. Of the FY16 budget request, $7 million is intended to support internet freedom programming, $5 million is to support civil society capacity-building, and another $7 million is to go toward assistance in providing advocacy and awareness training to increase respect for the universal principles of human rights. A further $5 million will support activities that address human rights abuses and support access to justice.

NERD’s overall funding levels have decreased modestly over time, from a $40 million request in FY10 to the $30 million in FY16. However, NERD programming is starting to be seen as an effective model of work that could be emulated in other parts of the region, where the space for democracy and governance work is rapidly closing. It is yet unclear how the Iranian nuclear deal will impact NERD’s programming and activities directed toward Iran, or whether it will enable the expansion of NERD’s programming beyond its traditional focus on Iran.

National Endowment for Democracy

Although, as a nongovernmental organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is not a part of the U.S. government, it receives nearly all of its funding in an annual congressional appropriation and is thus subject to congressional oversight. The administration has requested $103.5 million for NED in FY16, although Congress is likely to grant funds in excess of this amount due to strong bipartisan support for the institution. Congress allocated $135 to NED in FY15, a 30 percent increase over the administration’s FY14 and FY15 requests. $100 million of this money is to go to the “traditional and customary manner,” which entails support for core institutes supporting NED’s mission, such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the Solidarity Center. The remaining $35 million is designated for other democracy, human rights, and rule of law programs.

NED support for the work of independent civil society has become important amid the growing reluctance by U.S. government agencies to support independent organizations undertaking work that could be considered controversial or politically sensitive by host governments. NED’s support provides key demographics with the skills needed to make a positive impact on civil society in repressive regimes and in restrictive environments. NED has worked to adapt to rapid changes on the ground over the past few years, and has played a constructive role in building support for democratic values in conflict zones such as in Iraq and Syria.

Conclusions and Implications

Despite the 2011 “Arab Spring” showing that corrupt, authoritarian regimes across the MENA region could not maintain stability indefinitely through repression, the challenging years of political upheaval and change that have followed have seen a resurgence in authoritarianism and violence. The rise of violent extremists groups such as the Islamic State and the increasing efforts of regional governments to crackdown on independent civil society have hampered the work of organizations working to advance the goals of democracy and development. The United States, in partnering with repressive regimes for the achievement of broader regional security aims, has meanwhile grown more cautious of its support for independent civil society; this caution is driven both by a desire to avoid antagonizing allied host governments and a fear of putting in danger local participants in its civil society programming.

Although the major multi-country initiatives and programs which the United States funds should expect to receive a roughly equivalent level of funding in FY16 as in FY15, the effects of the United States’ growing hesitance toward advancing civil society and democracy programming is clear; an increased attention on and allocated resources toward security and military issues have diverted high-level policy attention away from the support for regional democracy and human rights. There are outstanding concerns that mechanisms such as MEPI are losing their identity and focus as reform-driven advocates of civil society by virtue of their reorganization and shifting of priorities within the State Department bureaucracy. Organizations such as the DRL, which focus on political programming that may be controversial to the states in which they operate, still experience considerable budgetary gaps in the FY16 proposal, gaps which may impede their capacity to effectively produce tangible change. Some organizations, such as NERD, have not expanded into civil society-building operations across the broader MENA region, despite demonstrating the effectiveness of their model. Accordingly, while the United States still does finance and support civil society and democracy building in the MENA region to a significant degree through these mechanisms and multi-country programs, that support is hesitant, underwhelming, and regressing rather than increasing. Without a greater high-level policy emphasis placed on democracy and civil society building and the advancement of human rights, these programs are unlikely to make great breakthroughs in advancing these goals in the region, but rather should be expected to simply sustain the United States’ current regional efforts, however minimal they should be, for the coming fiscal year.

Also of note is the fact that U.S. democracy and governance programming in the MENA region is shifting focus towards issues of governance at the local level rather than at the national level. A continuing and even growing emphasis is being placed on local grants and grassroots training, education, and confidence building as strategies for developing regional democracy. This attention on local governance may be important and crucial for laying the groundwork for democratic changes from the ground up. However, in the longer term, if such efforts are to ultimately succeed in truly fostering and bringing about democratic change, they will need to be accompanied by action on the part of the U.S. government and development organizations to pressure national governments to empower local institutions. However, considering the changing priorities of American foreign aid and funding, to be discussed in later blog posts, the potential for such to be the case does not appear promising.

The Essence of Love and Identity in Romantic Relationships

What is love? What are its essential characteristics? What roles do romantic relationships play in the formation and transformation of our own identities? Such are critical questions for understanding the human experience, for love is quite possibly the most essential and fundamental experience we may have. It is no wonder, then, that philosophers and thinkers have grappled with these questions for ages, coming up with a wide range of answers which seek to explain and legitimize the love experience. Yet, to answer these questions, it is equally important to ask how our context defines our relationships, and how our relationships are structured in such a way to give meaning to the emotions we feel and describe as “love.” Through an exploration of the writings of Piazzesi, Solomon, and Kollontai, I seek in this paper to describe love and its essential characteristics while exploring the role romantic relationships play in the formation of our identities. By exploring relationships of different forms and definitions of love coming from different contexts, an approach suggested by Piazzesi, I attempt to find the characteristics of love, if there are any, which are transcendental of context. Ultimately, I arrive at the conclusion that love, outside of context of relationship and explanation given to legitimize it in a given context, involves the “fulfillment” of the individual through identity-construction and role-identification and the “transformation” of the individual through personal betterment. Love itself, we may conclude, is hard to define as an all-encompassing concept, for it exists in many forms and different contexts; nonetheless, love is the emotional experience which includes these crucial characteristics which we use to legitimize and justify the form of relationship in which those emotions are manifest.

Prior to further inquiry into the concept of love, however, an important caveat must be recognized – the form of a romantic relationship, in which love is manifest, is very much the product of our cultural and social context. As perhaps the most “important psychological and social factor” in the human experience, love has “always instinctively [been] organized in [society’s] interest,” whether for reasons of economy, spirituality, or social cohesion (Kollontai 285). According to the different needs of different societies, then, what constitutes a “loving” experience may alter as the result of disparate discourses on the matter. As Kollontai and Piazzesi would point out, these discourses are the products of historical, cultural, and economic variation, and are therefore subject to change over time and space. Indeed, as demonstrated through Kollontai’s historical perspectives on love, the epitomical form of a loving relationship, as culturally perceived and desired, has evolved considerably over the course of Western civilization – beginning with a love for one’s blood relatives in kinship communities, evolving into a love for friendship in the ancient world, a chivalrous love in the feudal era, and, finally, into the private, intimate relationships of contemporary times. Piazzesi rightfully argues that the discourses, social norms, and understandings which shape and sustain these relationships provide “individuals, couples, and groups with frameworks for the definition (‘for making sense’) of their experience;” that is, they give meaning and legitimacy to the contextual “how and with whom” by which people love (Piazzesi 5). Accordingly, by “defining” love, attributing to it certain characteristics and elements, we are legitimizing an experience shaped around our context. This variable nature of the experience of love, influenced by culture and history, poses difficulties for the development of a singular “concept of love.” Like Piazzesi argues, a general definition of love, which is removed from an immersion in contextual experience, misses the “historical diversity, the social character, and the semantic richness of ordinary experience,” and therefore fails to acknowledge that cultural nuances influence the manner by which love is manifest in and connected to a relationship (Piazzesi 3). Nor does providing a “minimal definition” to love, which seeks to find a universal” essence” to love by reducing it to its simplest and most basic elements, do justice in meaningfully describing what love is, for it detaches the concept of love from the variety of experiences and social expectations which we associate with and define it by. Rather, to establish a more personal, more pertinent, and therefore more “meaningful” concept of love, we should take Piazzesi’s suggested approach, which is to explore how we arrange our relationships so as to feel like we are experiencing love; to, as Piazzesi’s analogy puts it, see how we “get the feeling of being in a romantic living room” (Piazzesi 7). Such is the approach I will take, exploring how Solomon’s and Kollenti’s writings on relationships, defined by their contextual circumstances, show the connection between love and a relationship, along with its implications on identity. Comparing the similar motivations of love laid out by these authors will hopefully provide closer a closer understanding of the transcendental romantic love experience, unaffected by the form of a relationship.

As previously mentioned, the romantic relationship of two people in a union is considered the quintessential loving relationship in our current context, and shapes our discourses surrounding love. Kollontai argues that this form of relationship is the product of a bourgeois society, which places emphasis on the “married couple, working together to improve their welfare and to increase the wealth of their particular family” (Kollontai 284). Furthermore, the “moral ideal of a love the embraced both the flesh and the soul,” has been propagated by the bourgeoisie as crucial elements in loving relationships (Kollontai 283). The discourses surrounding love in this context, then, naturally point to the union of two people with a physical and emotional connection as the key to experiencing love. But what are the characteristics of love which we experience in this form of relationship, or, better put, how does this structure of romantic relationship shape our definition of a loving experience? To answer this, we can turn to Solomon, who writes that love is the “attempt to create for ourselves a sense of wholeness or completion through a union… with another person” (Solomon 194). A crucial element of this “wholeness” is in the process of forging a mutual identity with another in a relationship. The “identity theory” of love, which Solomon bases his arguments on love around, states that the self is, individually, indeterminate, and is rather “defined with and through others” (Solomon 197). Though we individually attempt to define our “true” selves, giving priority through our actions to some of our features over others, there is no “true” self or set of roles which dominates over others. Rather, who we are and the value of our person, or the worth of our accomplishments, depends a great deal upon the opinions of others, who help establish the “way we ‘fit’ in the world” (Solomon 201). As Solomon puts it, “we are the persons we think ourselves to be and become through the eyes and opinions of the people around us” (Solomon 202); that is, our identity may be self-constructed, but is mutually defined and established. Such is equally the case in our self-esteem and self-worth, for the self is “never assured” (Solomon 200). Rather, it “consists of proving oneself to be what one is,” depending on the value held by others of our person in order to be reinforced. This is why we choose the friends and – more importantly – the lovers that we do, for they are the ones who make us feel “virtuous and worthwhile (Solomon 201). In addition to the role that love and relationships play in the definition of our identity, they, according to Solomon, also play a role in the transformation of the self. Romantic love is “a redefinition of oneself in terms of goodness,” for it embodies a desire for self-improvement. The lover wishes to not only be loved for what they are, but for what they can become, their “ideal self” (Solomon 206). The desire to improve oneself comes from the creation of roles inherent in the establishment of a relationship; we dress and act the roles we would like to play in order to attract a partner, and, once that relationship has been established, we develop and perfect those parts “to the point where they seem as if they were completely natural” (Solomon 207).

Thus, as can be seen through Solomon’s writings, the essential characteristics of love include an establishment of identity through mutual definition and a self-transformation of identity toward “goodness.” We may not “become ourselves” in our romantic relationships, for the self is never assured nor ever “perfectly” defined, but we do narrow and define the set of roles we wish to take on and the characteristics of ourselves which foster and support our relationships. Being in love in a romantic relationship, in effect, helps us find our “place in the world.” While all the networks of people and opinions in our lives help form a sense of ourselves, Solomon rightfully acknowledges that “it is love that often proves to be definitive” (Solomon 207.) Yet he ascribes these essential characteristics of love to only relationships which encompass a union of two people. As our identity and self is, in part, intimate and private, it takes “one and only one other person” to really know and be in contact with it, according to Solomon (207). Accordingly, many of our essential attributes are determined by that single other person, who is “closest” to us. Looking back to Piazzesi, though, a question must be asked – are the characteristics of love put forth by Solomon absolute, or are they simply manifestations of the monogamous form of relationship which he understands in his context? That is, are these characteristics simply legitimizing the love we experience in a relationship, giving us a sense of “being in that romantic living room?” Or, are these characteristics transcendental of context, equally capable of being manifested in a different form of relationship? To answer this question, we may turn to Kollontai, who presents arguments about the characteristics and nature of love which extend beyond the sphere of a monogamous union between two lovers.

To begin, Kollontai takes an opposition to Solomon’s last point, stating that “love is not in the least a ‘private’ matter concerning only the two loving persons; love posses a uniting element which is valuable to the collective” (Kollontai 279). As had been previously mentioned, Kollontai then lays out the historical development of loving relationships, demonstrating how they have evolved and changed their fundamental character in order to satisfy the needs of society. The modern concept of monogamy, sustained by bourgeois discourses, has developed to support the need to accumulate and concentrate capital within the family unit. The characteristics Solomon ascribes to a monogamous union, then, indeed are simply legitimizing an experience developed for extraneous needs. Yet, as Kollontai argues, love can “not be contained within the limits set down by bourgeois ideologists,” and, with a change in context, can be “set free” to take shape in different forms. For Kollontai, the key among these different forms is polyamory, which allows for a “fulfillment” not possible in a monogamous union. She writes that a “man may feel sympathy and protective tenderness [for one woman], and for another he might find support and understanding for the strivings of his intellect” (Kollontai 288). Why must he choose one of the two, thereby tearing “himself apart and crippling his inner self, if only the possession of both types of inner bond affords the fullness of living” (Kollontai 288)? By having multiple intimate, romantic relationships, then, the individual can find themselves more “satisfied,” more “complete,” in ways which are impossible in Solomon’s context. The multi-sidedness of this emotional experience and fulfillment, Kollontai argues, would assist in the growth of the bonds between people which would benefit the growth of the communist collective, a reflection  of the context in which Kollontai exists. Kollontai further lays out the qualities of love, which would help benefit the “collective” for which she writes. Among them, mirroring the statements of Solomon, is the nature of “transformation” in love, in which the individual betters themselves intellectually, creatively, and emotionally as a response to their lover. Yet, whereas Solomon argued that such betterment is only possible through an intimacy with one other person, whose opinions reign supreme, Kollontai argues that it can exist in both the “private” and “public” sphere (Kollontai 290). In a collectivized society, built “upon the principles of comradeship and solidarity linking all members of the collective,” then, the characteristics of love are such that they help build ties with all of individuals of the society, not just a single other person, and thus manifest themselves in polygamous relationships. Again, as seen through the lens of Piazzesi and in the case of Solomon, contextual circumstances influence the nature of love as seen by Kollontai, and the form of our relationships, in this particular case polygamous ones, legitimize the experience of that love.

Yet we see two distinct characteristics of love which transcend context emerging from these two authors. The first is a broad sense of “fulfillment,” of finding completion and meaning for ourselves. Solomon describes this fulfillment in terms of identity-construction, detailing how our identity is mutually defined through our lovers; the unsure nature of identity, which needs to be defined by another, should be expected in the individualistic society in which he wrote. Developing identity, then, helps “fulfill” and “complete” the individual in that form of society, for it helps establish their place, role, and value in the world. For Kollontai, this “fulfillment” comes in building ties to the broader collective, again a natural reflection of the society in which she wrote. Through the establishment of multiple romantic relationships, which may help develop and grow the individual in different ways, the individual is bound closer to the collective and the collective accordingly grows closer. In a society of solidarity, then, love helps “fulfill” the individual in that it allows them solidify their role and place within the collective as another member working toward the broader, collective good. The second characteristic of love we see emergent is its “transformative” nature, which moves the individual toward bettering themselves. Again, the reason for this “transformation” is different according to context; for Solomon, it is in response to having a lover, for the beloved wishes to be loved for, and therefore wishes to develop, their ideal self. For Kollontai, this transformation need not be “private” but rather should be “public,” as would benefit a collectivized society, and comes about as a desire to help strengthen and develop the collective. Nonetheless, the transformation of identity through personal betterment is a crucial element of love for both these writers, regardless of their context.

Through this exploration of love and romantic relationships as they exist in different contexts, two crucial characteristics emerge: “fulfillment” of the individual and “transformation” of the individual. Love, we can conclude, is thus the experiencing of these two characteristics, plus others dependent upon context, and the legitimization of our relationships by the presence of these characteristics. Ultimately, regardless of the form of romantic relationship in which we experience love, we become ourselves in our relationships, and find and satisfy our place in society in our relationships. Though love took on other characteristics  throughout history, these two characteristics, as laid out by the authors explored herein, are transcendental of context. Piazzesi warns against making a “minimal definition” to love, but, using these characteristics as fundamentals, perhaps with them we are closer to a true and encompassing concept of love.

Parasitic Host Manipulation – A Possible Source of Zombification in Humans?

Below is a faux research article I wrote on ‘zombification’ in humans for a course analyzing the biological, political, sociological, and psychological aspects and implications of a zombie apocalypse.


Zombified humans display an array of behavioral traits which differ greatly from non-zombified humans; these traits are manifest in the relentless aggression and insatiable hunger for human flesh which are characteristic of zombie behavior. The danger which these zombies present to humanity is enormous, so understanding the sources and processes of zombification is vital to combating the zombies and preventing further cases of zombification. There are a number of possible pathogenic sources of this zombification, but one of them, parasitic zombification, is arguably the most likely. Some parasite species have demonstrated an ability to alter the behavior of their hosts, and the processes through which they do this are beginning to become better understood. As this parasitic behavioral manipulation comes closest to the sort of behavioral changes we observe in the zombies, detailing the processes of parasitism and host manipulation and applying them to a zombie model is very important. Doing so will greatly aid scientists and government officials in understanding, combating, and preventing this zombie apocalypse.

Background on Parasitism

Parasitism entails a non-mutual relationship between two organisms in which one, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host (Chandler, 1955). These parasites can be protozoa, which are microscopic, one celled organisms that live and multiple within their host;  helminths, which are large, multicellular organisms which also live within their host but cannot multiply while in an adult stage whilst inside their host; and ectoparasites, which include ticks, fleas, lice, and other organisms which attach or borrow into the skin of their host and remain there for long periods of time. Parasites often show a high degree of specialization, reproduce at rates which are much faster than their host, and rely upon their host in order to propagate their species (About Parasites, 2010).

Parasites can come in an array of shapes and sizes, infect and attack a diverse range of species and bodily systems, and cause ailments whose symptoms can be inconvenient to lethal, yet one specific group of parasites are particularly dangerous and, in the case of human zombification, important for study. These parasites hijack their host’s nervous system and manipulate their behaviors, often producing zombie-like behaviors in their host (Knight 2013). The behaviors which parasitic host manipulation can cause have often been divided into three well documented categories (Poulin et al., 1994). In the first, parasites manipulate their hosts in such a way as to favor transmission to their next host, often by rendering the former more susceptible to predation. In the second, they can  force a host into a habitat other than the one in which it usually lives, because the parasite must either exit or propagate in that habitat. The third type of manipulation causes the host to attempt to transmit the parasite via the spread of blood. This sort of transmission is most often seen in blood-sucking insects, who transmit the parasites while gorging on the blood of their prey.

Mechanisms Used by Manipulative Parasites

Manipulative parasites use a number of different mechanisms to control the behaviors of their hosts. Different parasites make use different mechanisms, producing different behaviors and effects, yet the array of possible mechanisms and results make it clear that parasites have a large set of tools for controlling and manipulating their hosts. These mechanisms include energetic drain, site of infection influences, manipulation of the immune system, and neuromodulation.

image00Rates of behavioral modification mechanisms used by manipulative parasites

One way Parasites manipulate host behaviors is through the extraction of energy, in the form of nutrition, from their hosts. When the host becomes starved for nutrients, their behavior might change, and if the energy drain impairs their physiology they might become sluggish or display lower physical performance. On the other hand, if a host is drained of energy, it might become more active and increaser foraging rates. Either way, the change in behavior could benefit the parasite responsible for the energy drain. Yet while this method of behavioral alteration demonstrates that such manipulation need not be complex, it does also lead to general behavior changes that might not benefit the transmission of the parasite, leading to inefficient transmission rates and putting the host at danger of malnutrition and death, thereby also killing the parasite (Lafferty & Shaw, 2013).

Another manner in which parasites manipulate their hosts is through the use of their host’s immune system. Because parasitic infection elicits host immune responses that are designed to overcome the invading parasite, parasites have to negotiate the host’s immune defenses in order to establish an infection. The continuing nature of the infection means that the parasite must continually evade the host’s immune system. However, many parasites demonstrate the ability to exploit host immune defense mechanisms for their own benefit. Research has shown that  parasite-exerted effects on the immune system may influence neuromodulator pathways, thereby altering the behavior of the host. For example, neuroinflammation is a common immune response of the brain to injury or invading pathogens. Several studies have demonstrated that that parasites may incorporate these host neuroinflammatory responses into their behavior modification strategy, using things such as nitric oxide (NO), rodlet cells, and alteration of neuromodulators to alter host behavior. For example, nitric Oxide, in addition to an immune response, functions as a neurotransmitter that can influence brain monoaminergic activity (Helluy & Thomas, 2010). Another example is the trematode Schistoso mamansoni, which secretes opioid peptides into its host, thus influencing both host immunity and neural function (Kavaliers et al., 1999). Inhibiting the host immune system while also utilizing it to neurally control the behavior of the host  is an evolutionary capability which has given manipulative parasites great advantages over their hosts. As parasites are constantly being target by the hosts immune system, they will consistently have resources to alter the behavior of the host.

Manipulative parasites can occupy a range of sites within their host. They are often found in the body cavity, muscles, central nervous system, and other parts, such as the brain. By occupying and damaging key these organ systems, these parasites can change host behavior. For example, the parasite Diplostomum spatheceum infects and damages the eye of a fish, causing it to become more susceptible to predation and thus the parasite more easily spread. Other parasites infect other parts of their host’s body, such as their muscles, in order to change the strength and function of these parts of the body and thus help the parasite spread more easily through transmission.

image01Infection location rates of manipulative paraistes in their hosts.

A key organ system for the manipulation of host behavior is the central nervous system; these parasites are able to manipulate behavior either through damage of the system or more subtle, neural manipulation (McConkey et al., 2013). The location in the brain and central nervous system of where this manipulation occurs is significant: various receptions of a certain hormone or neurotransmitter may produce different behavioral results depending on where they are located in the brain (McConkey et al., 2013). Parasites which want to manipulate their hosts behaviors in specific ways via neuromodulation must thus be located in and targeting specific locations within their hosts brains.

Numerous studies have shown that parasites achieve manipulation by directly or indirectly altering concentrations of hormones or neurotransmitters in their hosts. Concentrations of these substances that can be synthesized by the host and that have effects on behavior are altered following infection, thereby changing the behavior of the host. These substances could be produced by the parasite and released into the host, or actively taken from the host by the parasite and then rereleased (Knight 2013).

Monoamine neurotransmitters, which include the catecholamines DA, adrenaline (epinephrine, EP) and NE, the indoleamine 5-HT, and octopamine (OA), are potent neuromodulators. Monoamines influence many types of behaviors in vertebrates and invertebrates, including those related to activity, movement, stress, social activity and reproduction. The manipulation of these neurotransmitters is common in parasites which control their host’s behavior. One of the most striking and consistently documented behavioral modifications can be seen through parasite-induced changes in indoleamine 5-HT. Changes in 5-HT-altered behaviors in both vertebrates and invertebrates demonstrate the ubiquity of 5-HT as well as its widespread use in animals of varying complexity. Indeed, 5-HT is a major neuromuscular neurotransmitter used in the most primitive animals and its role expands into neuromodulator and neurohormone in more complex animals, where it controls additional physiological functions and behaviors, including stress responses and immune challenges. By altering indoleamine 5-HT, parasites take advantage of their hosts through the manipulation of their behaviors (Knight 2013).

The other neurotransmitters also have significant impacts on host behavior. DA has been found to stimulate locomotion, aggression, dominance and reproductive behavior in fish and mammals, and when altered can produced altered behavior in these categories. OA is a neurotransmitter and hormone that regulates other neuromodulators and that also influences many behaviors, including fight-or-flight reactions, stress, aggression, locomotion and feeding (Knight 2013).

Despite an understanding of these mechanisms for altering host behavior, researchers still do not know whether parasites alter host neuromodulators by secreting their own neurochemicals to produce a change in host neurochemical activity, or whether they secret chemicals which trigger a host response, thereby leading to altered neurochemical activity (Adamo 2013). Unfortunately, the complexity and interconnectedness of neuromodulator systems make it difficult for researchers to discern the specific mechanisms responsible for changes in behavior. Yet the complex nature of these systems might also help parasites induce widespread behavioral changes in their hosts with minimal effort; because these monoamines regulate one another in feedback loops, a parasite need only alter the activity of one in order to effect regulatory changes in the others (Knight 2013).

Applying parasitic host manipulation to the zombie model

Zombified humans display an array of behavioral traits which are starkly different from non-zombified humans. They are relentlessly aggressive, and have an insatiable desire for human flesh; indeed, it seems that the main motivating force for zombies is the search for and consumption of human flesh. They also display significantly lessened cognitive skills and capabilities, demonstrating a change in the physiology of their brain. As of yet, the source of zombification has not been identified, yet it is known to be highly infectious and spread through the bite of a zombie or the transference of zombie blood (Mogk 2011).

Could zombification be caused by a parasite manipulating human behavior? The characteristics of zombies, zombification, and parasitic behavioral manipulation seem to point in that direction. Zombification occurs from the transfer of blood and from a bite of a zombie. It is entirely possible that a parasite causing the zombie infection is transferred through blood and that, by attacking humans and spreading their blood, zombies are acting as a sort of vector for these parasites. If this is the case, the parasite would fall into the category of host manipulator which the host to attempt to transmit the parasite via the spread of blood. While this sort of host manipulation is most often seen in host insects, it could be that this parasite is making use of humans instead.

The insatiable hunger which zombified humans display could be a result of the energy drain caused by the parasite as it feeds off of and controls the human host. By reducing the amount of nutrients in the host body, the parasite could be causing the host’s hypothalamus to increase the host’s desire for food in order to replenish the nutrient loss. By doing so, the zombie will continue to display and act upon its hunger for human flesh, thereby causing it to continue to attack humans and spread the parasite.

The lessened cognitive capabilities of the zombified humans could be a result of damage caused to the frontal lobe by the parasite. Such damage would decrease thinking function, memory tasks, planning, and attention; all of these traits seem to be deficient in zombified humans (Mogk 2011). This damage could perhaps be intentional, for the aggressive behaviors which zombies display against other humans require a lessened sense of empathy, reasoning skills, and other traits which inhibit these behaviors in nonzombified human beings.

The behaviors which zombies exhibit could be the result of behavioral modification caused by parasitic manipulation. As has been discussed, the monoamine neurotransmitters DA and OA influence locomotive, aggressive, and dominant behaviors in mammals. It is entirely possible that the parasite infecting zombies manipulates these neurotransmitters to increase aggression and dominance in zombified humans, thereby causing them the rage which fuels their attacks on humans and the transmission of the parasite. Furthermore, it is likely that this parasite manipulates other neurotransmitters and hormones to inhibit the sense of pain which zombies may feel, thereby causing their seeming immunity to pain, and increase their desire for food in the form of human flesh. Further neuromodulation, albeit in ways not yet discussed or researched, can cause the zombies to specifically seek out non-zombified human beings for attack and prioritize humans as a source of food, ensuring that the parasite thus has the greatest rate of propagation possible.

Further research

The recent spate of zombie attacks have elicited much notice and concern, yet little study. Although the characteristics of the zombies are understood and the way in which the infection is spread is recognized, the specific source of zombification and the method in which humans are zombified has still not yet been discovered. In order to effectively combat the zombies and prevent a disaster on an apocalyptic scale, scientists and government officials must discover this source and study it in order to develop an effective medicine and countermeasures.

This article has outlined the possibility for the source of zombification to be a behaviorally manipulative parasite. The characteristics of the zombies all fit within the scope of symptoms caused by such parasites, and the behaviors of the zombies seem to resemble the behaviors which such parasites could cause. By proposing a possible source of zombification, this article hopes to help scientists more easily and readily pinpoint, or discount, a possible cause to the looming zombie apocalypse. In doing so, they will be more prepared to quickly develop countermeasures which will help halt the spread of the zombies and the zombie infection.

Scientists must now make it a priority to capture a zombie and study its physiology, in particular its brain. They should focus on determining whether there are any parasites located within the brain of the zombified human, and, if so, begin the process of developing an effective medicine or vaccine to combat and prevent the spread of these parasites and their behavioral manipulation. The specific mechanisms and neuromodulators and neurotransmitters which parasite uses, if it is indeed found, will also be an area of study which is necessary. By studying these, scientists will better understand how parasites might control their hosts, how future parasites might attempt to control a human host, and how the human brain works with regards to these functions anyway. Such research will be invaluable for preventing future zombie outbreaks and for better understanding the anatomy and function of the human mind.


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