Hugh Raffles
Anthropology Professor, The New School, New York City
02:34

The Beauty of Bugs

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The New School University anthropologist thinks insects are "astonishingly beautiful," both individually and en masse.

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. 



Transcript
Question: What makes an insect beautiful?

Hugh Raffles: I think insects are astonishingly beautiful and there is a chapter in the book called beauty which is about - it’s very short.  It’s just really just a little story about when I used to - as I said, I’m an anthropologist and the first fieldwork I do is in the Amazon in a village at the mouth of the Amazon and one day we were coming back on a boat, just like this little boat, and I had no idea it was coming, but all houses along the river - normally they were just these small, wooden house, sort of a brown color, and they were all just colored golden yellow and it was really trippy.  It was like - I don’t know what it was like actually.  It was very - I’ve never seen anything like it since. 

And then I could make out - and I asked people, but I could make out that actually it was butterflies.  These yellow butterflies that just arrive every summer just for a couple of days and so the whole place just gets completely transformed.  It’s like thousands and thousands and thousands of them and they come - they're actually attracted to the houses because they're attracted to animal waste and human waste and that’s what they come for, which isn’t quite so romantic, right?  But, the actual - what they do to the houses is just spectacular.  And they just stay for a couple of days and then they go.  So, that way one of the very dramatic things that I thought of or that - about beauty.

there's also individual insects.  That was like a mass beauty I suppose, but there's also individual insects and how amazing it is just to take the time and really look at them.  Even something like a fly is really quite amazing if you can look at them.  If I find dead insects I try to save them.  I keep them and then look at them under a little lens or something.  Even with a pair of glasses you can look at them.  They’re just - and really - and it’s amazing what you find in New York.  I found little scarab beetles and all kinds of things and they're really just amazing when you look at them and to think about too because they're just so different.  You have no - there's not really any way to sort of access their interior life at all.  With most animals we think that we’ve got some way of making some connection, but with insects we don’t really.  We can look at their behavior and sort of speculate, but not really.

Recorded on March 22, 2010

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