Hugh Raffles
Anthropology Professor, The New School, New York City

Is Fear of Insects Justified?

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There's a lot of irrational fear of insects among humans, but there are some that can be lethal.

Hugh Raffles

Hugh Raffles grew up in London, England. He has been an ambulance driver, a nightclub DJ, a theater technician, a busboy, a cleaner, and a scrap metal yard worker. Currently, he lives in New York City where he teaches anthropology at The New School.

Hugh's writing has appeared in academic journals and more popular venues such as Granta, Natural History, and The Best American Essays. His first book, "In Amazonia: A Natural History" (Princeton University Press, 2002) was awarded the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing and selected by the American Library Association as an Outstanding Academic Title. In 2009, he received a Whiting Writers' Award.  His new book "Insectopedia" was published by Pantheon in 2010. 

Question: Should we fear insects?

Hugh Raffles: I don’t think fearing them does us much good, but I suppose so in some cases.  I don’t think cockroaches are to be feared.  I mean, there's a lot of irrational fear of insects.  I don’t think cloth moths are to be feared either, but in malaria area, mosquitoes are kind of dangerous, well, extremely dangerous.  Tetsi flies are dangerous.  Obviously, there's all the disease carrying insects are really are dangerous and if we don’t have the - in countries where you don’t have the infrastructure to prevent disease, then those insects are to be feared.  But, they're really to be feared because of poverty. 

I mean, this used to be a malaria area, but we don’t have this problem anymore.  And even West Nile disease isn’t really a serious problem and Lyme disease isn’t a serious problem in the scheme of things.  I mean, it is if you get it, but it’s not in the scheme of things and that’s because we’re wealthy countries with - well, now we have much better healthcare than we did have.  But, with healthcare and with - and we have the kinds of conditions that mean that we don’t really have to fear insects and we shouldn’t do.  But, in countries where we don’t have those - where people don’t have those things then yeah, unfortunately they do have to.

Questions: Are there other cultures that appreciate insects more than we do?

Hugh Raffles: I think there are probably quite a few, yeah.  But, the one that I got to know best was in Japan.  It was Japan, yeah, where people really have a  very - or many people have a very different relationship with insects and insects are much more visible and much more present and have a much more positive - or there’s a much more positive view of them.  When you see insects or forms of insects, so like insects transformed into things in manga and in anime and people have very strong symbolic associations with certain insects at certain times of year.  You know, with fireflies and cicadas and crickets and dragonflies and there's this long literature in which they appear with these strong symbolic connections as well and a lot of them are very positive and even when they're connected to lust and nostalgia like cicadas are because they come at that time of year in the fall, then - or should that be - maybe that’s crickets that come in fall.  I always get confused.  But, whichever it is that come in the fall, even though they’re sort of connected with sort of loss and the turn of the seasons, it’s still a very sort of an affectionate relationship and people who I spent time with feel a lot more affinity with insects in general and a lot more - I think a lot more sensitive to - yeah, to their lives, the smallness of their lives and their individuality, even though people still crush roaches and all that kind of stuff too.  It’s not like every - I don’t want to try to say everybody’s so in touch with nature or something, but there's just a much stronger connection to particular insects and they're just much more visible in society in general.

Recorded on March 22, 2010