American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT (review)
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American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT. By James E. McWilliams. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Pp. ix+296. $24.95.

With this book, James McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University–San Marcos, traces the paradoxical history between insects and humans who sought to control them. He describes how farmers, in their quest to convert nature into commodity-producing farmland, created environments conducive to insect infestations. “Settlers,” McWilliams [End Page 922] writes, “were the insects’ greatest assistant and . . . they knew it” (p. 78). Thus, the insect paradox was born.

At its root, American Pests explores the contested history of entomology in the United States. It examines the careers of men like Thaddeus William Harris, Benjamin D. Walsh, Charles V. Riley, and Leland Howard to consider the consequences of professionalization that centralized the production of entomological knowledge at the national level. Indeed, early-nineteenth-century farmers and amateur entomologists worked together in the field in what McWilliams describes as the “chaos of experimentation.” They experimented with biological and cultural control methods that were rooted in local environments and local problems.

Over time, this hands-on approach gave way to professionals who distilled pest control strategies from the halls of Washington institutions. Seeing themselves as “crusaders for a national cause,” federal entomologists “began to take seriously the proposition that chemical insecticides could be the modern scientist’s preferred way to fight insects” (p. 95). However, as McWilliams aptly demonstrates, not all entomologists jumped aboard the chemical bandwagon. Many fought to reverse the destructive appetites of insect pests with biological methods. Charles Riley, who in 1878 became the head entomologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the leading proponent of biological control. His untimely death and Leland Howard’s ascension as head of the federal Bureau of Entomology shifted the focus of insect control in America.

McWilliams argues that the primacy of chemical control marked a dramatic change that further isolated the human world from the insect world. And this is the greatest strength of his book. Not only does the author demonstrate the historical processes that encouraged entomologists to adopt chemical controls, but he also contends that it disrupted a set of relationships that tied humans directly to the land and nature. In essence, the “chaos of experimentation” that connected farmers, entomologists, and consumers to the natural world faded against the chemical fog that has dominated agricultural production since the beginning of the twentieth century.

In perhaps the most provocative, but least successful, section of the book, McWilliams sees Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a turning point in the ways in which Americans rejected chemical pesticides and returned to—as the epilogue suggests—the “praise of localism.” The legacy of Silent Spring, McWilliams writes, “allows us to enter the twenty-first century cautiously optimistic that the path dependency that strapped blinders on insect control and sent it galloping past potential methods of biological and cultural control might eventually hit a dead end” (p. 194). Perhaps some readers (as I am) may be a bit more pessimistic (although hopeful) that the logic behind chemical pest control may come to a “dead end”; but the institutions [End Page 923] and networks McWilliams so richly describes have invested too much money, time, and political capital to see their efforts simply fade away. To be sure, since the publication of Silent Spring, American agribusiness has spread its influence globally to ensure that chemical pesticides remain the only answer to solving the insect paradox, if not in the United States, then elsewhere.

And this leads me to my final point. Many of the “American pests” Mc-Williams describes were not “American” at all, but invasive species, whose arrival into the country was part of the ecological consequence of global trade. McWilliams examines how the Hessian fly, the Asiatic beetle, the Japanese beetle, the Mexican bean beetle, and the European tree scale tormented farmers and entomologists alike. Domestic pests like the Colorado potato beetle, Rocky Mountain locust, and San Jose scale also proved quite harmful as they expanded across the nation. But while McWilliams lucidly explains how farmers and entomologists dealt...