Our Fascination With Bugs

People project their fears, desires, and yearnings onto insects, and many of our ideas about society and social organization have been worked out on them.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Why did you start studying human reactions towards insects?

Hugh Raffles: What I wanted to study were insects, but I wanted to study them as an anthropologist, not as a biologist and I was trying to figure out if there was - when I started, I was trying to figure out if there was a way that I could actually - well, I was trying to figure out if I could actually find a way to talk about insects and to think about insects as insects and the only way I could think about how to do that or figure out how to do that way actually by looking at times and places where humans and insects had interesting interaction.

So, in fact it turned out to be a book about encounters between humans and insects, but that wasn’t really what I had planned when I first started it.

Question: What do our reactions towards insects say about us?

Hugh Raffles:  I supposed if I had to boil it down I’d say that insects are especially fascinating in that regard because they have - they create such intense reactions amongst people and so much ambivalence.  So, people have a - we really have a hard time figuring out how to think about them and what they are.  They’re really very - they’re just so different from us and they're so unknowable and that’s what makes them really interesting. 

So, for a long time people have just projected onto them so much of their fears and their desires and their yearnings and also, the social insects, so many ideas about society have been worked out on them and social organization, this kind of thing.  So, it’s actually endless.  I mean, that’s sort of what I found.  I didn’t intend to write such a big book, but it’s just endless.  I could have gone on and written another one probably. 

Question: Do insects reflect our own humanity? 

Hugh Raffles: I don’t think they do really except to the extent that we project onto them and they reflect it back to us.  So, they're available, I suppose, like some movies stars are to just reflect back on us whatever it is that we want to project onto them.  So, it’s been almost - it’s really been almost anything over the centuries.

But, in terms of what insects themselves are and what they do, I think they're probably entirely indifferent to us.  No matter that we really shape their lives and condition their lives in so many ways, I think they probably got very little.  There's no sign that they have any particular interest in us.  It’s probably isn’t why it’s so hard to write about them. 

Question: How have we anthropomorphized them? 

Hugh Raffles: I don’t know that we’re very good at it.  I mean, the social insects, people have done that like crazy and taken models for human society from them.  But, with individual insects, it’s harder.  They really don’t seem to respond to us at all, but there was a time when people didn’t feel like that and I imagine in other places people don’t feel like that.  So, at the turn of the 20th century, like 100 years ago, around that time - it was only around that time that people started thinking of flies as nuisances.  Before that - house flies - before that they thought of them as friends and mothers would encourage their children to have flies around them as companions, even when they were eating.  There was no association of flies with disease until the early part of the 20th century.  So, at that time, there was a lot sort of positive anthropomorphizing of them. 

And I guess we do it with - well, in Britain where I’m from we do it with ladybugs.  But, it’s a little perverse because what we’re supposed to say them is this thing, “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.  Your house is on fire; your children are gone,” which is a little - it’s not quite - it’s not a very friendly thing to say to them, but sometime you really like them.  So, I guess we do it with some.  Some of the pretty ones maybe.

Recorded on March 22, 2010