Humans and insects

Even though insects vastly outnumber us in terms of population size and variations, humans tend to feel like we are the standard for normal and so, when we turn to bugs, we see them as abnormal, as weird, as abberations.

‘Something in the insect seems to be alien to the habits, morals, and psychology of this world, as if it had come from some other planet, more monstrous, more energetic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than our own.’
—Maurice Maeterlinck

And yet, most of them will do us no harm and many won’t even come into contact with humans.  But regardless, insects have a PR issue.  They are seen as crop destroying, disease spreading, biting, jumping pests, at least in some parts of the world.

In the western world we tend to fear insects, often irrationally.  For example, in the UK fear of flies is far less protective than in Africa where mosquitoes can kill you.  It has also been suggested that fear of insects may actually be related to a revulsion around poverty and dirt, so a fear of flies could really be a fear of low status or uncleanliness.

In Japan, people have a very different relationship to insects.  They are more visible in their culture and are cast in more positive roles.  There are strong symbolic associations and a long literary history of insects shown in a better light.  On the whole, there is more respect for insects and a closer affinity to them.  And, I feel, this is something we should emulate.

Insects are similar to us in many ways (we share 60% of our DNA with fruit flies)and as such it feels natural that we should have a closer and more positive relationship with them.  Insects serve our needs in many ways and I’ll be looking more closely at this in another post but in summary, they are critical to the existence of the world we know today.  They play vital roles in pollination, in pest control and in decomposing waste.  Indeed, a 2006 paper estimated that they are worth $57 billion to the US economy each year.

Having said that, animals are not here to serve us and this implicit part of the economic argument invalidates the existence of non profitable creatures, or those where we are yet to see the role they play in the wider ecosystem.  Paul Manning suggests instead that we should look to their “fascinating behaviour and wonderful appearances” and value them for themselves.  He also goes on to say that insects can make us laugh, they are intriguing and mysterious and they have amazing and surprising survival strategies.  They are also innovative and have been creating and using technologies for far longer than humans have existed.

Ants have been practising agriculture for millions of years ago whilst humans only began 10,000 years ago and, along with other insects, they build their own cities and communities.  For example, the leaf cutter ant creates intricate structures with gardens, highways, rubbish dumps, food distribution areas and funeral service centres and honeybees create cities that are aesthetically sophisticated.

“The resemblances between men and ants are so very conspicuous that they were noted even by aboriginal thinkers”
– William Morton Wheeler, 1910

As well as sharing our social systems and behaviours with ants and bees, we share a very similar nervous system.  Like us, they can see, hear, smell, taste and feel and they can even sense things we cannot such as UV light.  Enzymes made by humans and insects are very similar and our muscles and nerve cells work the same way.  Because of these similarities, research on fruit flies can give us insight into the genetic components of many human diseases.

In many ways it could be argued that insects are better adapted to live in this world than we are.  I was reading an article about whether insects can feel and it commented that they don’t have their neural processors confined to their heads, which is why headless cockroaches still live.  This seems like a really clever way of setting your body up, the human head is vulnerable and by collecting our processing cells together in one place we are putting ourselves at risk.  Similarly, insects have exoskeletons which act essentially like a knight’s armour and protects the insects from various threats.

“All species, however small and seemingly insignificant have a right to exist for their own sake, but this sentiment lacks the political clout needed to fight for the urgent preservation of nature.”
– Ross Piper

And the reasons that bring political clout will be the topic of another post.

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