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Hugh Raffles: Anthropologist of Insects

WHEN Hugh Raffles began researching his eccentric compendium, Insectopedia (Pantheon, 2010), he knew almost nothing about bugs and shared the usual human response to them: creepy. That strong reaction intrigued him, since most bugs are too small to be really threatening. “But there’s something about the way they move and their unpredictability and their great numbers, and the way they land on us and invade our space that’s unnerving. Even when they’re dead, people approach them gingerly and poke them.”

Raffles (DFES, 1999), a professor of anthropology at the New School in New York, decided to explore the intense and often odd relationships between humans and insects across centuries and continents. In alphabetical chapters that mimic encyclopedias, his book encompasses a miscellany of startling scientific facts, obsessive entomologists, neglected histories, peculiar cultural practices, and insect art. Raffles calls it “an anthropology of insects.”

His research into the world of bugs led him to question certain scientific assumptions and practices, and also persuaded him that by reducing insects to dangers, pests, or lab fodder, we diminish our humanity.

“I don’t want to call it mystical,” he says, “but insects made me feel that all beings are really important. It would be a great thing if people started to think about them as animals, and started to think about the evolutionary continuity between us and them, the ways we’re connected.”

He begins Insectopedia by describing the first efforts at “high-altitude entomology”—insects collected via airplanes. Scientists found that on any given night, in one square mile of sky above Louisiana, at least 25 million insects were flying from 50 feet above ground up to the altitude of 14,000 feet. There were wasps, bees, moths, gnats. Ladybugs puttered at 6,000 feet, dragonflies cruised at 7,000. One ballooning spider windsailed along on its filaments at 15,000 feet. The air is teeming with billions of unheard and unseen bugs on the move. Raffles calls them “aerial plankton.”

Next he zooms in on particular insects, individuals, and cultures. He describes pioneering artists and naturalists who drew insects in micro-detail, making them wondrous as well as nightmarish. In Niger he visits the markets where people buy locusts and grasshoppers, important sources of nutrition as well as agricultural pests. He devotes a chapter called “Sex” to a peculiar erotic obsession catered to by Squish Productions, a company whose videos feature attractive women touching and teasing insects before squashing them.

He details many strange traditions inspired by bugs. Crickets have been especially popular. The Japanese cherish and parse cricket songs. In European folklore the cricket functions as an icon of spring or good fortune. The oddest example is the complicated world of Chinese cricket fighting. Raffles goes to Shanghai to explore it. The tradition is centuries old, with revered texts that spell out how to evaluate, feed, and train crickets. Poems and paintings celebrate the sweet science of cricket fighting. Opinions run hot about the best breeds and regions for champion crickets, and the market for fighters is brisk. It’s a world of rituals and secrecy and gambling dens. Some corrupt managers dehydrate their crickets before weigh-in, or drug opposing fighters while hopping up their own warriors on ginseng.

“When you started looking at crickets through the eyes of people who really knew them and thought about them and had all this historical knowledge,” says Raffles, “crickets started looking like completely different animals.”

In Insectopedia, L is for language—spoken by dancing bees, as discerned by Karl von Frisch, who won a Nobel Prize in 1973. Frisch not only intuited that the bees communicated symbolically, he broke the code and learned the language’s grammar and vocabulary. He showed that bees transmit complicated information to their hive-mates about food sources through symbolic dances—not only the direction but the distance and abundance. He made his astonishing discoveries during thousands of hours of acute observation, experimentation, and imaginative immersion in the bees’ world.

But to understand that world, he didn’t hesitate to cut off the bees’ wings, slit their thoraxes, shellac their eyes, and otherwise maim them. The discrepancy troubles Raffles. “It seems very revealing about the scientific enterprise,” he says, “—that there’s a greater good, which allows Frisch, no matter how attached he was to bees—and sometimes he really thinks of them as individuals—to do these things to them as subjects of his experiments.”

Raffles quotes the writer Elias Canetti’s comment that killing insects “is the only act of violence which remains unpunished even within us. Their blood does not stain our hands, for it does not remind us of our own.”

This attitude becomes monstrous when it turns human beings into insects. In the chapter called “Jews,” Raffles dissects the way Nazism justified the extermination of Jews by categorizing them as lice and parasitic vermin. “Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing,” wrote Heinrich Himmler. Killing Jews wasn’t criminal, merely sanitary. The poison used in the gas chambers—Zylkon-B—had been developed as a delousing insecticide. The Hutus would later use a similar rationale to kill hundreds of thousands of “Tutsi cockroaches.”

Throughout his book, Raffles seems alternately drawn to and ambivalent about the knowledge extracted from insects by scientists, amateur naturalists, and collectors. On one hand, they are the people who have taken insects seriously and looked at them most intently and sympathetically. A Japanese connoisseur tells Raffles that to collect insects requires hours of study and thought and time outdoors, which requires patience and focus. These practices lead to a love of nature and an appreciation of the many small worlds within the bigger world, and of the subtle differences and connections among all beings. Love of insects can be a path to wisdom. On the other hand, Raffles points out that these scientists and collectors kill the thing they love.

Except for the killing, he sees similarities to what anthropologists do. His work is also “an extractive process,” he says, based on hours of patient observation. “I think of myself as providing some kind of bridge to ways that people understand something.” With Insectopedia, he provides quite a span.

Raffles on youtube: