Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, & Language from the Insect World by Marlene Zuk

In her latest book, Marlene Zuk makes a case for some of the world’s smallest inhabitants: “If you are one of those that think insects are important, but not breathtaking, pests without inspiring passion, I want to change your mind.” Zuk then proceeds to make her case for insects as fascinating objects of study.

The introduction illustrates the importance of insects not only to human existence, but to human understanding as well. By studying creatures so completely different from ourselves, we can come to knowledge that is not possible otherwise. By setting aside the anthropomorphism Zuk indicates is inherent in virtually all vertebrate study, we can truly look at life from a new perspective. And what do we find when we do so? “It is possible to be unselfish without a moral code, sophisticated without an education, and beautiful wearing a skeleton on the outside.” Though one could argue that latter is subjective, her point is certainly well made.

She also makes the case for insects as both mirror and window to the human condition. They are mirrors in that they exhibit a lot of the same behavior: animal husbandry, language, social hierarchies and learning. However, she adds, they do all of those things
without the benefit of the advanced hardware that the vertebrate brain offers, as well as missing the software of the pituitary system and hormones so important in humans. Insects are windows because of those differences. One of the points she returns to again and again is that insects make for great study subjects because we aren’t them.

Another ongoing theme throughout the book is the “obsession” by humans to guarantee ourselves a club of one, and only one, member. For each trait that was presumed to be unique to humanity (personality, language, the ability to learn) that has been observed in the insect world, scientists seem to get a case of the “yeah buts”, in order to prove why it is not really. Barring that, the list for admission continues to add new criteria, though she also points out that “one can detect a certain desperation in resorting to homicidal violence as a badge of distinction.”

The different chapters investigate different aspects of insect life, anything from education to parenting to the altruism of ants. Do insects have personalities? Yes, Zuk argues and here’s how that benefits them and us. She also has a chapter on the one topic about which she is asked most frequently, “Two Fruit Flies Walk into a Bar…”

In the final chapter, “Six-Legged Language”, she describes language studies. Famous for dancing their communiqués, honeybees need to communicate new food sources as well as new locations when it is necessary to move the hive. When communicating the latter, in addition to where, the scout bees have to communicate desirability of the different options and come to a consensus so that the entire swarm can be moved to the new home. And that is just the beginning of the task.

Overall, Sex on Six Legs is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Though she emphasizes certain themes almost to the point of redundancy (i.e., the evils of anthropomorphism and the human club of one, or that insects make great subjects of study) she also tenders a great deal of evidence for why this is so. This is a book that is certainly aimed more towards a popular audience than a
scientific one, but she does not assume that audience is unintelligent. Nor does she assume the audience can’t take a joke, as she does spend a fair bit of time with her tongue firmly planted in cheek. It is certainly a great introduction to ethology for the lay reader and has the potential to change minds about the fascination of insects.

Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness Dan Zarella

Another offering from the Domino Project. Not as bad as “Read This before Our Next Meeting”, but still pretty simplistic. Nuggets include “if you publish your content when fewer other people are publishing their content yours has a better chance of being noticed than if you ran your content when everyone else was running their content.”

If you are the type that really needs someone to distill the message into small, digetible bites (and I think a lot of us find ourselves there from time to time) this is probably the series for you.

The Mighty and the Almighty Madeline Albright

I can’t decide whether Sec’y Albright’s reading added to or detracted from the audiobook. Other than that, it was a really fascinating listen. Equal parts history, theology and statecraft it is one of the most cogent explanations for the state of the world today. While only five years old, I would really like to see a newer edition, with her take on those five years.

A Carpenter’s Life as Told by Houses Larry Haun

This was an enjoyable book, if a little on the preachy side. Haun is a master craftsman/carpenter and tells the story of his life through the houses in which he has lived and those he has built. There are many fascinating stories here that make the book worth reading.

Where it breaks down a bit is in the incessant hearkening back to a simpler time and eco-lecturing. While he is absolutely correct in his sentiment, it reminds me of nothing so much as a crotchety old fart standing on the porch yelling at all the kids to “get off Mother Nature’s lawn!” Again, he’s right: we waste too much and think too little when it comes to our consumerist society. But counting the gifts opened at a 13-year old’s birthday party (and a wedding reception to boot) don’t serve nearly so well as his practical stories of how to reuse materials and the benefit (especially monetary) that entails.

I received a review copy from the publisher.

Available 13 September 2011

Moving Violations

I had an unusual experience on the road recently. Was driving along minding my own, when a large SUV flew out of a parking lot and cut me off, causing me to slam on my brakes, etc. Sadly, this is not the unusual part. As the SUV turned into the lane, they had to slam on THEIR brakes as there was a truck stopped in the lane to turn left. Not in the turn lane mind you, but the lane lane. Again, not the unusual part. The SUV driver, of course, availed themself of their horn. Once all was clear, we got to the next intersection, which has two left turn lanes, which allowed me to pull alongside the SUV. Rather than pull all the way forward, I stopped to express my displeasure with the driver. Again, sadly not unusual. I did not use hand gestures (ok, that IS unusual, but not my point), but simply mouthed the now-ubiquitous “REALLY?!?” Get this. The driver rolled down their window. And APOLOGIZED. No. Seriously. It happened. She made some gesticulations which translated that she was late getting back to work from her lunch and…APOLOGIZED again. I made gestures indicating acceptance of the apology and then…WE. BOTH. MOVED. ON. Crazy, huh?!?

There’s a lot to be said for an apology. If sincere, and I do believe the other driver was sincere, as was my acceptance, it does a lot to diffuse a situation. It also allows for that moving on process. Something that no one in Washington seems willing to do. Of course, it’s not just Washington, better scribes than I have described the me-first-gimme-gimmes in which an entire society is now entrenched. In the immortal words of Louise Sawyer, “you get what you settle for.” The chicanery in Washington is no more and no less than a reflection of the people who produce it. Uneducated voters produce uncouth representatives. And just to be clear, by uneducated, I mean about the candidates and the issues, not unschooled. Most voters FEEL so rushed that they will vote for the loudest ad or, worse yet, straight party line. I say FEEL rather than ARE, because it’s just that. We all still get twenty-four hours in each and everyday, but our choices in how we spend that time impose (sometimes) great restrictions.

This rushing has helped to create a society in which everyone feels that their time is more valuable than anyone else’s. We’ve all seen the results: whether it’s the person who cuts you off in traffic or the one who cuts in front of a long line with “I just have a question,” as though that is not the reason everyone else is in line. I’m not sure, but I almost feel as this may be some kind of competitive impulse. It seemed to arise around the same time that NASCAR became more than just a pastime for under-toothed, over-sauced rural enthusiasts. I’m not ready just yet, however, to blame Jeff Gordon for the downfall of American society as we know it. Kyle Busch, perhaps, but that’s another story…

So, regardless of how we got here, the question remains: how do we get back to civility? How do we culturally get back to a situation in which a heartfelt apology is a sign of strength, rather than weakness? Our friends from the East might have something to say about this (no, not NYC, THE East). There is a lot to be said for slowing down and living in the moment. Such as when one does receive an apology, don’t blow it off with a flippant “no problem” or worse yet, “whatevs”. Take the time to listen to the apology and actually accept it sincerely. In simplest terms, that’s called positive reinforcement. If we start sincerely accepting the apologies given, and actually allow the healing of egos that comes along with that acceptance, we may start to see more apologies. If one takes the time and effort to sincerely apologize, they become more mindful of their actions. One who is more mindful of their actions, is less likely to do something for which they need to apologize.

So try it. If someone gets mad at you for something you did, apologize. And mean it. See where that gets you. Perhaps it will get you to a conversation in which anger is diffused and true communication can occur. Something not possible with a middle finger or four letter words, no matter how good that might feel at the time…