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Reviewed by:
  • Insectopedia
  • Diane M. Rodgers
Hugh Raffles , Insectopedia. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010, 465 pp.

This is not your typical insect encyclopedia. The A through Z compendium does not start off predictably with cataloging the life cycle of A-ants, B-bees, and C-crickets respectively—although all of these are mentioned in the book. Rather, we begin with A-air, B-beauty, and C-Chernobyl. And it is this that makes Hugh Raffles' Insectopedia refreshing to read, as the associations he makes with insects are always surprising.

Raffles implores us to begin to see the small world of insects within the very first entries on Air and Beauty. But this is just as much a book about humans and their culture as it is about insects, beginning with the chapter on Chernobyl, while taking up the topic of insects mutated by radiation, human social issues are explored. Controversies about the scientific determination of safe exposure to radiation levels are discussed, along with Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's project of recording the effects of radiation on insects by painting the mutations. We learn of her unique artistic method as well as her trials with the nuclear industry and some members of the scientific community. [End Page 701] Art, politics, and the "conjoined fate" of humans and other species are all interwoven into one complex piece.

A similar chapter, "The Sound of Global Warming," introduces us to David Dunn's sound recordings of bark beetles and their connection to the larger issue of climate change.

Where the reader might have found crickets under C, instead there is an extensive exploration of crickets in China under G for "Generosity (the Happy Times)." Here is a good example of the explicit connection of insects to human culture that Raffles has in mind throughout the book. Insects are not categories, and they are "not merely the opportunity for culture but its co-authors" (100). While Raffles' explanation of the world of cricket fighting attains the thick description of Clifford Geertz's anthropological look at cock fighting in Balinese culture, he is after something other than an ethnography of cultural practices. This chapter, as is Raffles' intent for the book overall, is meant to impel readers to consider "relationships with other beings that accepts that they are both like and unlike ourselves, not in some generalized abstract way, but in quite particular respects that provide grounds for connections and empathies as well as points of utter disconnection" (114).

The individuals, groups, and topics Raffles' features in the book all serve to reinforce this point. Two of the entomologists of whom he devotes significant space, Karl von Frisch (Language) and Jean-Henri Fabre (Evolution), are portrayed as champions of science; however, there is also something a bit more subjective that guides their insect studies. Although many of the scientists and non-scientists he features in the book clearly strive to understand insects, what Raffles seems to continuously conclude is that these creatures are a wonderful mystery, one that humans should not ignore, but may never understand.

This attitude also saves Raffles from falling into the unreflective use of anthropomorphic terms. Although referring to the way that insects are often described scientifically and in human culture generally, Raffles also questions the accuracy of attributing human motive to insect behavior. As he recounts the scientific descriptions of the mating habits of the Empididae, in particular the gifting behavior of male balloon flies, what appears to be an exchange of sex for prey wrapped in silk is termed a "nuptial gift." When certain male balloon flies obtain sex with the female by presenting an empty silken husk or cotton ball provided by researchers, then the males are considered to be "cheating" and the female viewed as "tricked into sex." Raffles questions this evolutionary analysis: "What if we assume that the willingness [End Page 702] of many female flies to accept cotton balls indicates that rather than being 'worthless,' the objects have qualities unknown to us? Is it too obvious to point out (again) the hazards of presuming what an object is and what it does for beings whose ways of being are so different from our own?" (296).



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pp. 701-703
Launched on MUSE
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