REVIEW: The Butterfly Effect by Edward D. Melillo
A fascinating, entertaining dive into the long-standing relationship between humans and insects, revealing the surprising ways we depend on these tiny, six-legged creatures.
Insects might make us shudder in disgust, but they are also responsible for many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives. When we bite into a shiny apple, listen to the resonant notes of a violin, get dressed, receive a dental implant, or get a manicure, we are the beneficiaries of a vast army of insects. Try as we might to replicate their raw material (silk, shellac, and cochineal, for instance), our artificial substitutes have proven subpar at best, and at worst toxic, ensuring our interdependence with the insect world for the foreseeable future.
Drawing on research in laboratory science, agriculture, fashion, and international cuisine, Edward D. Melillo weaves a vibrant world history that illustrates the inextricable and fascinating bonds between humans and insects. Across time, we have not only coexisted with these creatures but have relied on them for, among other things, the key discoveries of modern medical science and the future of the world’s food supply. Without insects, entire sectors of global industry would grind to a halt and essential features of modern life would disappear. Here is a beguiling appreciation of the ways in which these creatures have altered–and continue to shape–the very framework of our existence.
I was lured to this book by the cover and the title but it covers far more than pondering whether or not the flap of a butterfly’s wing will cause a tornado around the world. The book covers in detail three products from insects which have played pivotal roles in human history up until this day: shellac, silk, and cochineal. Each has been sought after, bargained for, schemed for, and seen high then low then high demand. Entire economies have depended upon them and in new ways, humans have rediscovered how useful they are.
After World War II, the age of synthetic appeared to be poised to replace these and other natural products (not all necessarily derived from insects but most). Three things, among many possible items to choose to illustrate this point, have shown us how dangerous this can be: “Silent Spring,” Love Canal, and Bhopol, India.
Insects (six legged, with antennae, three part segmented bodies) have survived longer on the planet then the dinosaurs did and far longer than humans. They’re much better at producing non-toxic things we use as well as ensuring that life continues on Planet Earth. Every third mouthful of food we eat (on average) is due to the efforts of insects. And that’s not counting eating insects. Yes, this might be the future of food for our burgeoning population. Over 100 countries already have a long standing tradition of entomophagy (including the US) though proponents of wearily acknowledge that it’s going to take effort to get most western countries to (re) embrace the idea. But if potatoes and tomatoes can eventually be widely accepted as edible, then so can cricket flour, ants, larvae, and mealworms. Among other options. There are already entrepreneurs working on it and if you drink coffee, yeah, you’re already consuming some as up to 10% by weight of shipped coffee beans are often of entomological origin. ::slurp::
And along with being non-toxic, having multiple already established uses that humans just haven’t (so far) been able to replicate, the cultivation of lac bugs, silkworms, and cochineal bugs, as well as edible insects provide opportunities for rural populations (and especially women) to earn money and support themselves. We might even be able to reduce the tens of millions of pounds of e-waste generated every year by using shellac.Plus as humans and insects are so different, unlike humans and mammals, there might be less chance of species to species jumps in diseases.
“The Butterfly Effect” delves into much more than what I’ve mentioned. Fruit flies have provided research material that has led to numerous Nobel Prizes. Two researchers – one African American and one Austrian Jewish – fought racism and were responsible for elucidating fascinating details about how honeybees learn, map locations, and communicate with their hive sisters. There are a whole lot more bugs in the average house then most of us want to think about. Melillo has an entertaining style yet manages to be both thorough and interesting without the book becoming a boring lecture. Well done. B