I think about lice. A lot. It’s an occupational hazard, but I can say with certainty that it’s better than the occupational hazards encountered on the Dirty Jobs episodes involving maggot farming, sewage removal or owl vomit collection.
Recently, while engaged in a de-lice-full reverie, I realized that despite all of our 21st Century technology—video chat on our phones, civilian space travel, those must-have hot dog dicers (as seen on TV!), and refrigerators that dispense crushed ice on demand—we are not much better off as a species than we were thousands of years ago when it comes to lice.
1. Lice were around before humans—over a million years before humans. Really. They were here first.
2. Once they hooked up with us, about 170,000 years ago, lice have evolved right along with us. King Tut, Queen Nefertiti, and the alluring Cleopatra had to deal with lice 4000 years ago, just as Courtney Cox, Shakira, and Madonna did in recent years. They’re adaptive little bloodsuckers (the lice, not the celebrities, although one could argue to include them), and they’re not going to become an endangered species any time soon (the lice, not the celebrities, whose shelf-life is notoriously brief).
3. Prior to the era of “better living through chemicals,” people tried fighting lice with whatever they could get their hands on, “from date flour in the 16th century BC to later use of quicksilver, cresol, naphthalene, sulphur, mercury, kerosene, oil, and vinegar,” according to Contemporary Pediatrics. Clearly, they failed to cure humankind of the pesky little bugs. It makes me wonder why anyone believes that a jar of Hellman’s and a shower cap will do the trick while sophisticated pesticides have failed. Maybe the lice will be tricked into thinking they’re a salad, and they’ll leave straightaway, marching in formation into a giant Tupperware bowl.
4. Today, there are dozens of preparations containing the best that modern chemistry can offer; yet head lice have not been eradicated—not even from the heads that were treated by aforementioned and mostly noxious chemicals. In fact, lice have become increasingly resistant to the very insecticides designed to kill them. Biological adaptation is a many splendored thing. “Take that, puny humans!” they cry, taunting us with their staying power, and causing psychological trauma that long outlasts any infestation.
Despite all our technological advances, the technology of lice removal practiced by our primate ancestors—careful hand removal—is still the safest and most effective we’ve come across, although we’ve applied our significantly improved brainpower to create a more efficient and reliable method of picking them off. And we know how to avoid picking them up again.
It’s the environmentally sustainable solution for a problem that seems destined to be with us until our species disappears. And I hope that means lice will be with us for a very, very long time to come.