Friday, April 15, 2016

The Peculiar Pleasure of Hating Insects

I think we can all agree that mosquitoes suck.

"To hate all but the right folks
is an old established rule!"
- Tom Lehrer, "National Brotherhood Week"

Venerable though it may be, outgroup hate has become unfashionable in progressive circles. We have laws against hate speech, and we have a nasty word for people who hate: bigots. Actually, we have a whole taxonomy of unpleasant names, from racists and misogynists to antisemites and homophobes.

We're more accepting of hatred toward really despicable individuals, like mass murderers, domestic abusers, or people who talk at the theater. Still, even this kind of hatred has its moral critics and troubling ramifications, as evidenced by the reams of legal and psychological literature with titles like "Can/Should We Purge Evil Through Capital Punishment?" (Criminal Law and Philosophy, 2015); "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Feminist Responses to Violent Injustice" (New England Law Review, 1998); "Through the Looking Glass, Darkly: Perceptions of Hate in Interpersonal Relationships" (Journal of Relationships Research, 2015).

My favorite of all the papers I ran across in my hasty academic research on this topic is: "Hating Criminals: How Can Something That Feels So Good Be Wrong?" (Michigan Law Review, 1990). Unfortunately I couldn't find the full paper*, but the title is all I need to propose that hatred is a pure guilty pleasure if ever, oh ever, a one there was. As the Witches of Oz sang in the musical Wicked:

"There's a strange exhilaration
in such total detestation."
- Elphaba and Galinda, "What Is This Feeling?"

This is where insects come in. Forget the pollination of bees; forget the beauty of butterflies or the cheap, abundant protein of grasshoppers. The greatest service insects render to humans is as a guilt-free target for hatred.

I realized this while reading a recent post on the science blog The Last Word On Nothing. A group of thoughtful, educated science writers produced a thoughtful, educated discussion about the raphidophorids (cousins to grasshoppers) titled "Kill the Sprickets, Kill Them All."

"I would like to drop them one by one into an active volcano. Their collective screams would bring me peace. . . ." 
"The best thing about camel crickets is that they’re easy to kill. . . ." 
"I loathe and despise sprickets, I hate everything about them, I need to kill them. [But even in the grip of pure rage, she reaches for science--] Psychology calls this entomophobia . . . "
According to a book I've just learned about through the magic of Wikipedia, "at least 6 percent of Americans suffer from entomophobia." I should read this book, called The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects; perhaps the author has already presented and/or dismissed this concept of bugs** as a hate magnet. I don't have time.

Instead, I'll just put on my captain's hat and point out the obvious benefit of hating bugs: you can act on it with no fear of retribution or judgement. You can kill bugs as quickly or as slowly as you like, by means physical, chemical, or biological, and no one will haul you to court on charges of mistreatment or murder.

In fact, the extreme prejudice with which we exterminate certain insects leads me to question the very roots of the word "entomophobia." The sentiments described above toward sprickets--the same that many people feel toward spiders, centipedes, mosquitoes, bees, or all of the above--are well beyond fearful. Arachnophobia and entomophobia should perhaps be more accurately named misarachny and misentomy. [Stop putting red squiggles under my perfectly good English inventions, text editor!]

And once we've linked fear and hate, we're not far from the inexorable anadiplosis of the big screen's Zen master:

"Fear leads to anger. 
Anger leads to hate. 
Hate leads to suffering."

That misentomists suffer is indisputable, as anyone who has ever discovered an earwig in an unwanted location (any location) can attest. So perhaps the target insects offer for our hatred is not such a kindness after all. Perhaps we need to stand firm and resist the seemingly innocuous temptation of hexapodan loathing.

That said, I think my next blog post will be about the utterly despicable nature of wasps.

* As I'm deep in the thickets of research for the squid evolution book, all of my paper-tracking-down skill and energy are going towards titles like "A phylogeny of fossil and living neocoleoid cephalopods" and "The gladiuses in coleoid cephalopods: homology, parallelism, or convergence?" These esoteric concepts will be available as riveting prose soon! (haha jk not till the end of 2017)

** This usage of "bug" is of course colloquial and unscientific. True bugs comprise but a single order of insects, the Hemiptera. For a while I was super pedantic about the word "bug" but eventually that stance struck me as kind of silly.


Mosquito: JJ Harrison, via Wikimedia Commons
Yoda: Lucasfilm Ltd.


  1. I have family members who are Jain, and interestingly Jainism encourages avoidance of intentional harm to insects. They even avoid root vegetables like potatoes and garlic because (according to the Wikipedia article) "tiny organisms are injured when the plant is pulled up and because a bulb or tuber's ability to sprout is seen as characteristic of a living being."

    1. Wow, that is fascinating! I think at some point I did know about Jainism, but I'd forgotten.

  2. It would be an interesting study to know if most people hate ALL insects or if the hate is individualized toward specific creatures and if the hatred is stronger when the creature takes up residence indoors.

    There are only two on my list of wishful extinction. One, noted in your image, is the cause of annoying itching and the carrier of devastating diseases - currently a topic of genetic modification to my wishful end. The roach is also a transporter of numerous (albeit generally not deadly) foul bacteria but does not inflict a bite and provides a service but seeing one in the house causes an immediate, focused attempt to permanently eliminate it and mandatorily sending it to the sewer (no other disposal ensures its - and any egg case's - demise) where encountering it in the woods, unlike the mosquito, does not invoke the hatred.

    (Posted for Denise Whatley)

  3. Charles Pellegrino, of dubious scientific and journalistic credentials, wrote a "science fiction horror story" called Dust whose premise is that all the insects in the world suddenly disappear. All the misentomists (or should it be "misentomes"?) initially rejoice, then have an "oh ****" moment when they realize what an important role the insects were playing in the global ecology. I wouldn't really recommend the book even as fiction, but it was an interesting idea.

    1. Heh, it would be pretty dramatic--losing all insects! Would pretty much immediately knock out all flowering plants. Cue famine . . .


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