Bitten

Hugh Raffles was not always an ardent advocate of bugs. Even while writing Insectopedia, his best-selling book on the arthropods, the anthropologist and New School for Social Research professor had squeamish encounters just like to the rest of us. Like that one time when a large water beetle dropped from the ceiling to partake in his morning shower. “I admit,” Raffles says, recounting the episode, “I screamed.”

The vast difference between insects and people makes it nearly impossible to “put yourself in their shoes,” Raffles explains, although his study and close contact with all types has certainly changed his outlook. His time spent traversing the globe to glean insights into the insect world—and our relationship to it—is the topic of this month’s Research Radio podcast, “Bitten.” Turns out, the longer Raffles studied bugs, the more his fear and disgust of them became something like, well, love.

Raffles devoted nearly seven years to researching, writing, and editing Insectopedia. His adventures include locust-eating in Niger, studying cricket fighting in Shanghai, and observing “queer” insect sex. “Insects are really the most different beings from us that I can think of,” Raffles says. “In fact, the closer you look at them, the more alien they seem.” For instance, insects don’t respond to verbal commands like pets do or have facial muscles. Their sense of space, or lack thereof, also complicates the relationship between person and insect: “They get right into us and completely all over us,” he explains.

Beyond the physical differences, cultural and environmental factors also influence our relationship with insects. For example, while cockroaches are very troublesome in small New York apartments, deep in the Amazon jungle they are more innocuous. And in China, there is a very personal connection between a trainer and its cricket in traditional cricket fighting. “The trainers will have their crickets perform special exercises or prepare certain meals for them, so they develop a very distinct bond over the course of the season,” Raffles explains.

Arranged as alphabetical reference entries, Insectopedia isn’t all humorous anecdotes or harrowing stories of jungle living. For example, some entries devoted to language and violence, Raffles quotes 20th-century philosopher Elias Canetti, who claims “insects are outlaws.” The idea had a profound impact on Raffles’ work, as “these animals just don’t come under the same kind of legal, ethical, and moral framework as all other beings.”

Based on this assertion, Raffles explores a historical tendency to characterize human groups as insects, a rhetoric sometimes used to justify violence. The most infamous example is the Nazis’ description of Jews as lice during the Holocaust, and the subsequent use of an insecticide in gas chambers. In the Rwandan genocide, Hutu leadership described Tutsis as cockroaches, and called for their extermination.

It’s a safe bet that at any cocktail party, Raffles is the resident bug expert. So, what would he tell you to do now if a three-inch roach climbed into your shower? “Don’t kill it! Try coaxing it back down the drain.”

Read more about Raffles’ Insectopedia here.

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Research Radio is a New School podcast series that explores academic inquiry at the university. Our faculty and students have been researching pressing social and scientific issues, from sustainability to psychology to politics, for nearly a century, and now you can hear about their latest findings.