Big Think Interview With 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.
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.
Question: What surprised you most in your research?
Hugh Raffles: Well, when I first started doing this research and writing this book, I didn’t really know very much about insects. That was actually part of the reason why I wanted to do it. So, I wasn’t one of those kids who spent all their time just running around in nature. I’ve always been really a city person. But, I’m very curious about things, so I really was very interested in trying to find out something about them. So, it was sort of amazing to me to just discover more and more about these animal’s capacities and actually to start thinking about them as animals, because people tend not even to think about insects as animals, at least not in the same category as other animals.
So, there was just so many - there's just so much that’s really amazing about them, about their behavior, about their capacities. I mean, they can do such incredible things. So, there was that whole side of it. There was the way that - now I’m going blank trying to think of things - particular things that are so interesting. Well, one thing, which I talk about in the book is how there are these studies done in the 20’s, which I think were still being done in the 70’s actually, where people tried to figure out how many insects there were in the air and they were figuring this out. They were interested in this because they were trying to track the movement of insect pests, particularly ones that were attacking cotton fields in the south of the US.
So, they sent planes up just to try to count. They have these little traps under the wings and they were trying to count the insects and what they found was that there were just these vast numbers of them in the air and that they were at really high altitudes too. They were at 10,000 feet, 15,000 feet and what they figured out over the decades, they didn’t really realize then, at that time, they just felt that they were - they’d been sort of wrenched off by the air and were just floating around. Well, they figured more recently, probably from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, was that the insects were actually deliberately getting themselves carried away. Often took off and then found air currents and then were also able to bring themselves down. So, even tiny, tiny, tiny insects that can’t actually fly would get themselves up into the air and would take themselves off places where they’d have more of the resources that they wanted or just a place that they preferred.
And when they first did these studies over Louisiana they found that in a square mile, like a column of air, a square mile, there were something like between 25 and 35 million insects, depending on the time of day and time of year. So, it’s a huge, huge amount and so I often think about that. When you look out of the window that the air is just full of these things that you can’t say and that they’re all going somewhere and that they sort of - I think many of them, they know where they're going. They're going deliberately. And it’s just like this completely different world that’s going around us that we’re almost - most of us are just unaware of.
Question: What do others find surprising about insects?
Hugh Raffles: I think what people are surprised about is that - are the cognitive abilities of social insects. So, people know that they have these very - well, people tend to think that they have - people know they have very developed social organization. They tend to think of it as very rigid and I think that’s partly because insect social organization, particularly bees and ants, were - they were used during the Cold War as - what’s the word - sort of like as an example - as metaphors for socialist society or communist societies. They’re often worker bees and worker ants and faceless non-individuals in comparison to all us individuals west.
So, people tend to think of them as very rigid societies and that actually doesn’t seem to be particularly true. Bees anyway and I think it’s the same with ants. I don’t know that much about ants, but bees are actually very flexible. So, although they're in what biologists have often called castes, like the workers bees and whatever, they're very flexible in terms of the tasks that they do, very adaptive. So, they - actually, and they’ll - like many animals do, particularly fish, they’ll change their physical characteristics depending on environmental conditions.
So, they’re really very flexible animals and their behavior is also quite flexible. So, there seems to be something like 40 percent of their time which is completely unaccounted for. So, they’ll spend - they’ll be doing other things that we think of as busy bees a lot of the time, but then they’ll also be - there's this large almost half the time when they’re basically just hanging around. Nobody’s quite sure what they're doing. At least nobody I’ve talked to is quite sure what they’re doing. Their just in their hives in the dark and they’re just sort of like hanging out with each other doing stuff and it’s not quite clear what they’re doing. They’re doing a lot of touching. They’re doing a lot of exchanging substances with each other. A lot of social things, but nothing that seems necessarily to have any particular function, just like most of what we do doesn’t have any particular function. They’re just doing stuff or doing nothing. Maybe they're resting or they’re just hanging out with each other.
And that’s the stuff that I think people are less aware of because we have these very strong stereotypes of these rigid societies and this constant activity and I’m sure it’s quite like that.
Question: Why are insects erotic?
Hugh Raffles: Well, I have no idea because honestly, they’re not one of the things that’s erotic for me, so I don’t have any idea why they are. But, I mean, for some people and it’s connected to their size, probably to the sound and to texture. I mean, all the things that are - I mean, there are other things that are erotic for me for those kinds of reasons, but insects don’t happen to be them. And so, I think it’s to do - I mean, in the example you are talking about which is a chapter in the book which is about crush freaks who are guys who - basically guys who get off watching women walk on small things of different kinds. So, one of the things that’s pretty common is insects, but it can be other small things. Sometimes it’s other small animals, other things. It can be soft fruit or depending - these things are really - things that get people excited are really, really specific, right.
But, in that case, from people I’ve talked and I have no idea if this is really reason or if it’s just what it is for the people I talked to, it’s to do with a sort of - with these guys it’s just sort of a projection I suppose again where they identify with the position of the insects, something like that.
Question: Is it associated with Sadomasochism?
Hugh Raffles: Though, in a very intense way because it’s also about - I think it’s about death, about being in a position of being crushed to death and the excitement of that. So yeah, it’s dominance, but it’s sort of an extreme form of dominance. But, I’ll tell you, I’m actually not that interested in why because I think as soon as you go down that road you're starting to pathologize people and make out that’s it’s something weird about people and I’m really not interested in doing that. It’s some - to me, I guess what was really interesting about it was how this is - how it really - the story exposed a lot of hypocrisy in our society because there was this period, I think, from 1999 to 2001 when crush freaks were really in the news and appeared in - I think particularly in year 2000, crush freaks were really in the news because there was a series of court cases where crush videos were being - where people who’d possessed or had distributed crush videos were put on trial for - in this country for cruelty to animals and in Britain for obscenity and they was a build up, this fast track through Congress to outlaw crush videos and to specifically to outlaw the depiction to cruelty to animals.
And this is the same law which - it was actually never used to prosecute crush videos after it was passed, after it was signed. I should say it was signed just by a claim in the Senate. There was no opposition to it at all. There was some in the House, but none in the Senate. But, it’s the same bill which is now under review by the Supreme Court because it was used to prosecute people who had been - who’d had dog fighting videos up online and it raised huge freedom of speech issues because it was about - it wasn’t about the - it was equating the depiction of violence with the violence itself. So, it was basically saying that if you had some representation of violence, that was equivalent to the violence itself.
This is, as you can imagine, right? This is really a big problem because all the kinds of things were if you might want to depict violence for anti-violent purposes or for any kind of reason, any kind of educational. Not even educational; there's all kinds of reasons why you might want to show it. And so, now this is before the Supreme Court at the moment and it seems very likely it’ll be overturned because it’s such a poorly written law and such a broadly written law.
But, at the time, it was used to absolutely just destroy these guys who were into crush videos. A very small - really a pretty small number of people. This is a very specific and pretty much a minority things, but it was really used in a very aggressive way. There was a large, very high profile campaign against it and some people that - some people’s lives were really made miserable and in particular the person who I write about in the chapter who’s really a great guy in many ways I think. His life was just made misery for it.
So, one of the things that he pointed out that I think is worth underlining is the hypocrisy of this in a society that has absolutely no difficulty in daily slaughter of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of animals for food and for carrying on animal experiments, all these kinds of things. For sanctioning all kinds of violence and cruelty against animals and his issue was that the - and I think it’s an important one, is that the problem with crush freaks and crush videos was that the violence that they were committing against animals was in the name of pleasure and it was that link between violence and pleasure that was so problematic and so troubling for people in Congress and the people who were involved in that campaign. It wasn’t the violence itself because all of and all of use participate in that on a daily basis.
Question: How did the Nazis, and more recently, the Hutus use language about insects to achieve their violent goals?
Hugh Raffles: Well, and both of those cases were times when people wanted to do extraordinary and violent things to another group of people and in order to do that, what they did was try to turn those people into objects that you could do things to. So, really what they did was they turned Tutsis into cockroaches and they turned Jews into lice, both of which are animals that we basically exterminate.
So, in Rwanda it was through this campaign through Hutu Power radio which has repeatedly called Tutsis cockroaches in the period leading up to the genocide. In Nazi Germany it was a little different because there was this - because not only were Jews called lice - and they were called many other things as well. They were also called cockroaches and they were also called rats as these very famous films of Jews being compared to rats with all this fast cutting. But, also because they were - there was this whole structure, sort of infrastructure of disease control and also fear of disease that was called into action against Jews. So, Jews actually really were not just sort of eliminated as vermin, but they were eliminated specifically as lice.
And there's all these ironies, so really you sort of horrible ironies so that - Zyklon-B which was the gas that was used in Auschwitz and generally widely anyway for extermination gas chambers, was an insecticide. When Jews were taken into - Jews and other people were taken into the gas chambers, they were told that they were being taken in for delousing and the rooms they were taken into were disguised as showers which was one of the first stages of the delousing procedures which people were familiar with. And there was also a lot of language that was used by Nazi leaders in which they talked about delousing; cleansing the country of lice and this is tied to a history in Germany of fear of disease, particularly of typhus. And there's the creation of border controls, delousing stations and border controls around the country and actively delousing and treating people in these very violent ways as they came into the country, particularly when they came in from the east from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe.
So, a lot of it has to do with language. I mean, language is really important in that process of dehumanizing people and obviously I’m not the first person who’s pointed this out. Many people have. But, in Germany as well, it was tied to this - in some ways it was more complicated because it wasn’t just fitting the label and then the label letting you do something. The label was really tied into - and maybe it’s always like this. I’m not sure, but the name and the animal were really tied into all these fears which already existed and all these activities that existed, particularly these things around disease control and fear of disease and fear of parasites. Yeah, so it’s a complicated and very dark history, but yet, insects were very important in that. They were important, really, as vermin.
I mean, it’s the stages of insects as these animals that you can destroy in any way that you want to and that you should destroy and have no right to live. I mean, it was a way of turning Jews into lives not worth living was the phrase.
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.
Question: 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.
Question: Which insect do you fear?
Hugh Raffles: I’m not crazy about roaches, but everything else I’m pretty much okay with. Spiders kind of spook me sometimes, but they're so amazing that I can usually get over that.
I don’t really dislike it. I try really hard not to, but they sort of always take you by surprise, especially - we’re infested with water bugs in our apartment, so I sometimes come home and switch on the light and there's two or three water bugs scuttling around the room and your first reaction is just to be freaked out. It’s hard not to be. But, then you have to remember, they're really tiny. They don’t want to be there. They really don’t want to be there. They’re there; they're in trouble if they're there. They’re probably dying if they're already in your apartment, especially the big ones and they're really, really scared of you. They just want to get out of the light.
But, it’s hard. There's something sort of primal about our response to them and I don’t really understand it because objectively, they're really, really fascinating. But, even a photograph of them can make you feel queasy and I’m not sure why that it. I guess it’s because - maybe it’s because they're parasitic on us in some way. I don’t know. But, I really don’t - I mean, it’s cultural, right? But, I don’t - yeah, and like everybody else, I don’t react very well to them, but I try really hard not to kill them. I just really want them to go away. I try to tell them to go away, but it doesn’t always work.
Question: What should we think about when the next time we crush an insect?
Hugh Raffles: Well, don’t. Don’t swat a fly and don’t smush a spider. You don’t need to do that and just think about how interesting they are and maybe just look at them. I think we can - I really do think it enriches our lives to look at them and to pay attention to them. Not just act as if they're not there in the world. They're not around us. They're really fascinating animals and they're just - yeah, they're just really, really interesting. And paying attention to something small and looking at their - looking at what they're doing and trying to think about what their lives are like and how they're moving through the world I think is a really enriching thing.
One of the things that I love from doing this book that’s really stayed with me is that we live in a world that is the real world through us and that is completely - we think it’s the objective reality that we have and it is our object reality. But, other animals, and it’s very clear with insects, they have a completely different sense of time for instance and a completely different sense of space. They see the world really differently. Their visual sense is completely different. Their hearing, if they have it, is completely different. They pick up vibrations and we don’t really.
So, the world they move in is actually a completely different world. It’s not just that they see it differently, it is just a completely different world that they’re in. So, when we go to swat a fly, unless we’ve got a fly swatter, and we go like this to a fly because time moves in a completely different way for a fly. It’s very easy for them to get out of the way, apart from their vision’s so much better. Because our arm is moving so incredibly slowly, they have endless time to do that. So, to me this stuff is really interesting. There are just these - we live in the midst of multiple worlds really and the one we’re in is the one we’re in and that’s the one we live in, but there are endless numbers and probably an infinite number of them that are also here around us, but we’re just aware of them anyway at all.
Question: How have we changed life for insects?
Hugh Raffles: Everything we’ve built and everything we do changes the world for all its inhabitants. Our lives are all so entangled right now, where there's not really any separation between us and animals or us and objects. We’re all part of each other now. Yeah, I don’t really know how to answer that except that they - we all condition each other’s lives, it’s just that we really have the - we have more of an ability to do that than any other being I suppose. We’re just very, very powerful.
Question: Are they more adaptable than we are?
Hugh Raffles: one of the things about the category of insects is that it’s so enormously broad. There are millions of species and just billions of individual animals, so some of them will adapt and some of them are very, very sensitive because they have these incredibly specific niches that they live in. And so, if that’s disrupted in some way then they just - they’re sunk really.
But, some of them and particularly the ones that we’re really familiar with like flies and roaches are just phenomenally adaptable and they’ve adapted to us, so they’ve become companion species to us and they figured out how to make the most of living with us and they’re probably better - they’re obviously way better at living with us than we are living with them because we spend our time trying to get rid of them and they spend their time trying to make the most of us. So, yeah, they're pretty adaptable.
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
A conversation with the anthropology professor at New School University.
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