Archive for the ‘Insect Quote’ Category

Sad Silence

Entomologist H.A. Allard, on the emergence of 13-year periodical cicada Brood XIX in Virginia in 1920:

I felt a positive sadness when I realized that the great visitation was over, and there was silence in the world again, and all were dead that had so recently lived and filled the world with noise and movement. It was almost a painful silence, and I could not but feel that I had lived to witness one of the great events of existence, comparable to the occurrence of a notable eclipse or the visitation of a great comet.


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“I suppose you are an entomologist?”
“Not quite so ambitious as that, sir. I should like to put my eyes on the individual entitled to that name. No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.”

— From The Poet at the Breakfast-Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
(H/T James C. Trager in the comments section over at Myrmecos)

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I’ve made a couple references to the growing field of entophilosophy here and here, but I am clearly not the only bug blogger to do so. Bug Girl recently wrote a post titled “Philosophical Entomology”, discussing the entomologist Matan Shelomi, who apparently won a thing called a Shorty Award for his entomologically involved answer to a classic entophilosophical question: “If you injure a bug, should you kill it or let it live?” His answer:

Looks like the philosophers and theists have made their cases. As far as entomologists are concerned, insects do not have pain receptors the way vertebrates do. They don’t feel ‘pain,’ but may feel irritation and probably can sense if they are damaged. Even so, they certainly cannot suffer because they don’t have emotions. If you heavily injure an insect, it will most likely die soon: either immediately because it will be unable to escape a predator, or slowly from infection or starvation. Ultimately this crippling will be more of an inconvenience to the insect than a tortuous existence, so it has no ‘misery’ to be put out of but also no real purpose anymore. If it can’t breed anymore, it has no reason to live.

“In other words, I have not answered your question because, as far as the science is concerned, neither the insect nor the world will really care either way. Personally, though, I’d avoid doing more damage than you’ve already done. 1) Maybe the insect will recover, depending on how damaged it is. 2) Some faiths do forbid taking animal lives, so why go out of your way to kill? 3) You’ll stain your shoe.

I have mentioned insects’ lack of pain receptors, despite squealing, here. I find Shelomi’s answer interesting for a couple of reasons, neither of which are informed by formal training in philosophy.

First, is the existence of suffering really contingent upon emotions? If an insect consciously felt constant, excruciating pain for ten hours, but did not have any emotions, I would still refer to this insect as a suffering insect. Especially if that insect was an ant.

Second, an insect, even if it can’t breed, still can have a reason to live. Sure, maybe your run-of-the-mill grasshopper lives to breed, but ants are more existentially complex. Only the reproductive cast (males and queens) are able to breed, and yet trillions upon trillions of worker ants run around every day busying themselves with their tasks. The completion of these tasks does lead to the increased reproductive ability of the queens, but the lack of breeding capability in the individual ant does not indicate that the individual ant itself has no reason to live.

However, I do appreciate Shelomi’s concluding remarks. The destruction of life, if not necessary or even beneficial, is at the very least morally questionable. Although I suppose one could argue that if you squish a doomed bug, it increases the efficiency with which another insect could consume said bug.

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The Mawangdui texts, when discovered, revealed quite a bit about medicine and other aspects of ancient Chinese culture previously unknown. As I was reading over some of the items in the medical text, which dates to the 2nd century BCE, I came across some entomological treatments.

For “Infant-cord Rigidity”, likely some sort of infant ailment, the instructions for concocting the medicinal cure say to “take anthill loam and smith it.” For “Inguinal swelling” (including hernias), the text instructs to “wrap hive-bee eggs [larvae] that have been dried in the dark in cloth”. Alternatively, one can “at dawn take one bee egg [larva]. Soak it in one cup of fine gruel vinegar and give it to the person to drink.”

While such treatments found in these texts are, to my knowledge, rarely implemented today, insects are still being used in attempts to alleviate the illnesses of man. For example, leaf cutter ants have antibiotics, and current research on these ants and their antibacterial mutualists may ultimately contribute to the development of more effective antibiotics for humans. Alas, I have yet to learn of any positive medicinal effects provided by bee larvae. But feel free to comment if you have any pertinent anecdotes!


Donald Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts (London: Kegan Paul International 1998), 221-304.

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Some time ago, my brother Josh mentioned a quote by Noam Chomsky in which, in order to make a point, the linguist used the impossibility of determining the underlying motives of an insect. However, Josh could not remember the specific reference. I have since found the interview in which Chomsky uses the example.

When asked if he had ever been psychoanalyzed, Chomsky responds:

“I do not think psychoanalysis has a scientific basis. If we can’t explain why a cockroach decides to turn left, how can we explain why a human being decides to do something?”

While I appreciate the method of using entomology in order to gain insight into the inner workings of our own species, I’m not sure what Chomsky really means, or rather, if I do know what he means, then I don’t agree. We may not know such things for cockroaches specifically, but for several insect species, we know, or have some evidence towards understanding, the mechanisms that drive individuals to make choices in direction. For example, a relatively recent study involving desert ants provides evidence that ants in the genus Cataglyphis can “count” on some level, and that it is this counting that guides its movements. Ocelli in many insects are used to process light, and individuals will make decisions based off information acquired through the ocelli, deciding to avoid light or head in a certain direction based on the location of light patches (often time the sun).

Another unusual aspect of using a cockroach to make his point is that in doing so, Chomsky seems to be ignoring or bypassing an important point – cockroaches are unable to talk.  Chomsky, as a linguist, may have mistaken the hissing cockroach for the hissing consonant, but the realm of speech is one dark recess in which these critters have never dwelt. I could ask Chomsky how he is feeling, and, despite his apparent resignations, he could theoretically respond, whereas I would be unable to ask the same of a cockroach with any degree of success. This difference between our two species would seem to provide a critical hit to the strength of the comparison.

But I’m no entophilosopher.


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