I like the idea that we have been underestimating insects, but I think we are on very shaky ground extrapolating our own feelings to beings so different from us (72). – Marlene Zuc, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love & Language From the Insect World
In addition to my other summer job, I am currently interning at an artists’ book publishing house, Granary Books in New York City. It is fascinating and stimulating on many levels, not least of which, strangely enough, is the commute.
Scientists therefore simply rely on the outward behaviour of an animal, often under controlled experimental circumstances, to tell them something about its personality (72).
I split the commute up into equal driving and equal mass transit parts so that I can have time to do what I love – read (as well as craftily avoid the fifth circle of hell – parking in NYC). Hauling The Name of Rose back and forth to NY last week was a testament to my admiration for Umberto Eco, but when I was convinced the other night by my youngest son to take him to a book signing of an author that he loves, I was suddenly in very dangerous territory – a bookstore.
Zuc’s book, Sex on Six Legs had several irresistible attributes: the title was intriguing, I had just spent a day admiring rare books of early scientific naturalist studies with beautifully rendered images of insects, at just over 200 pages it was a slim volume, and it was on sale.
While riding on the train has a ‘drone worker’ feel to it, and it is difficult to resist analogies between the strange soulless drudgery of a rush hour commute with insect life, but on the other hand, so far I don’t mind the time reading and observing of the human species in the altered social state of ‘commuter,’ it’s actually fascinating. Just the etiquette of where to put my bag….I want it on the seat, but I don’t want to make another person have to ask me to move it, nor do I want to too openly invite someone to sit down- and how does one decide to sit down (so closely) next to whom? Fashion, cell phones, other books, and stifled or open sleep – the other day a man fell right off his seat in a deep slumber – splat on the floor.
Regardless of its social baggage, however, another problem with calling the ants slave makers is that, as with the army ants, it gives an entirely incorrect view of what the ants themselves are doing (188).
And this is precisely the point that Zuc returns to over and over again in her book: while in ages past, insects, like all of nature which has tended to be inappropriately anthropomorphised, the compelling thing about insects is that – yes, they are not human, but given that, indeed because of that, what we can learn about ourselves through these creatures that exhibit intelligence, maternal and even paternal urges, murderous tendencies, the ability to learn and communicate, and most important of course – how to attract a mate, is quite compelling.
Insects, in terms of population, dominate the planet. As genetically remote as we are to any six-legged creature, there are so many different insects that within the same genus they can be many times more genetically removed from one another than we are from them. But it is their creepy similarity to us that is at once so mesmerizing and disturbing.
In other words, once we find that ants do something like teaching, we should not redefine teaching so only humans can be said to do it (34).
My attitude has always been live and let live. Many years ago I stepped into a shower and as I was in mid-lather was rudely alerted to the presence of another New Yorker beside me: a very large cockroach, stilled on the tile across from my position under the spout. I looked at her (most of the bugs we see are female, after all) she stared back, blankly, at me. Overcoming my terror of the blank stare, I reasoned with her: “You stay there, and I’ll be here, okay?” I finished my shower, got out with forced calm, and never saw her or any of her sisters again. Understanding is key.
In addition to being excellent subjects for examining cannibalism, insects are perfect for exploring another stark reality of family-life: parent offspring conflict (166).
Zuc manages to make subjects such as matricide, fratricide, suicide, post-coital homicide and all sorts of other human-society frowned upon activities seems almost reasonable in the insect world. Clearly humans have something that insects do not: some call it emotions, some call it a soul…but Zuc warns against even making those assumptions. The thing that really sets us apart is in fact quite difficult to name, and clearly difficult to understand. As the Bee’s communicative dance and the dance of the commuter show, the line of distinction is fine.
The doors of the train opens in Grand Central Station and we all move as a hive, focused on the day’s work ahead. As much as we are individually concerned, our collective movement affects the progress of each other. Of course, as humans, whether or not we share a smile or nod of human recognition is up to each one of us. One needn’t deride an insect’s way of doing things to appreciate that our unique capacity to be human, whatever that is, is the only thing that really matters to us. There is something glorious in life and in the way it is experienced in all forms. But I, I have only my way, and if you sit next to me on the train, I will move my bag, smile to you and acknowledge our shared humanity.
*Image of fly by Antonio Frasconi from Bestiary/Bestiario: A poem by Pablo Neruda translated by Elsa Neuberger with woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi