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Are reactions to insects culturally based?

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Hugh Raffles

Professor of Anthropology at The New School in New York City (US)

Hugh Raffles is Professor of Anthropology at The New School in New York City (US). He grew up in London, England, and started teaching anthropology after working as an ambulance driver, a nightclub DJ, a theater technician, a busboy, a cleaner, and a scrap metal yard worker.

Hugh's writing has appeared in academic journals and more popular venues, including the New York Times, Granta, Natural History, Orion, 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 (Pantheon, 2010), an exploration of connections between people and insects in a wide variety of times and places, was described by the New York Times as "miraculous," "impossible to categorize, wildly allusive and always stimulating."
Are reactions to insects culturally based?

“Insects” is an incredibly broad category of animals. It includes everything from giant beetles to the tiniest flies, flies so small that we can barely see them. So it’s not surprising that reactions to insects are varied.

But even though they’re varied, they’re nearly always intense, visceral even. Whether positive or negative, our responses seem to share this characteristic of being intense.

So why would that be? Well, I think there are certain characteristics of insects themselves that provoke this. They tend to be small. They tend to move fast. They exist in unimaginably large numbers. Their behavior is unpredictable. And they don’t keep their distance. They get too close to us physically. They can get on top of us. They can even get inside us. They can get into our most intimate places. And there really isn’t very much we can do about that! Some of them are also dangerous, although, ironically, those are often not the ones we’re most scared of. And, most importantly, in my opinion, they’re emotionally and psychologically unrecognizable: They’re as different from humans as an animal could possible be and we don’t have very good ways of making sense of them. We actually don’t have any good ways of getting close to them or of finding connection to them, in the way that we do with many other animals. They always seem to be indifferent to us and we’re just somehow, I think, at a loss to know what to do with them.

Yet, despite this, there’s a lot of variation in how we respond to individual types of insects. And that variation is both historical and cultural.

There are many examples of what seem to be unconventional attitudes to insects. A famous one is the way that Jains and Buddhists, who share a general reverence for life that stems from a belief in reincarnation, go to great lengths to avoid harming insects in any way. Another example — actually, my favorite — is houseflies. Up until about a hundred years ago, houseflies were regarded almost as household pets. They were welcomed into homes and mothers were encouraged to have their children play with them, to make friends with them, to actually have them around them when they were eating. It was only with the discovery of germ theory at the beginning of the twentieth century that our attitudes to houseflies changed completely and they started to be regarded as dangerous animals, and there were campaigns to eradicate them.

Contemporary urban culture is characterized by a desire to control our environment and space, a desire for purity and hygiene, to manage nature, to make it as predictable as possible, and to eradicate disruptive elements. Perhaps that’s why insects are viewed so negatively. Because they’re really extremely hard to control. They’re just very difficult!

So, to answer the question: Yes, in my view, reactions to insects are culturally-based. They’re also historically-based. And they’re also very contextual.

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