Resisting the Urge to Smush a Spider
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: 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.
Recorded on March 22, 2010
The New School anthropologist explains why, instead of killing bugs, we should pay attention to them and think about their place in the world around us.