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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.

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