Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sex on Six Legs

Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life,  Love, and Language from the Insect World
© 2011 Marlene Zuk
246 pages, not including index.

Disclaimer:   I read from an advanced review copy of the book, available through NetGalleys. No compensation for a review, good or negative, was offered or requested, aside from my own potential enjoyment of the book.

Like many of her subjects, Marlene Zuk's popular treatment of insect life is short, buzzing with excitement, and gruesomely fascinating.  Insects are the most numerous and varied life on Earth. While the functions they play are essential in maintaining a healthy ecology,  a close examination of them reveals a captivating world of behavior that is not only interesting in itself, but can shed light on questions of interest to humanity -- like the origins of language and personality.

Zuk kicks off Sex on Six Legs by explaining the scientific advantages of studying insects beyond simple curiosity.  Because insects are so far removed from humans in appearance -- and indeed, given their tubular mouths and exoskeletons, repulsive to many -- conclusions about insect life are much less likely to be tainted by our tendencies to anthropomorphize the subjects at hand. As relatively simple creatures, the genetic causes of behaviors are far easier to track down than in humans, and their quick lifespans are a boon to scientists studying the effects of genetic manipulation on evolution.  Insects perform the same essential acts of life as humans, and seem to engage in behaviors similar to our own -- language, parental care, and community living. Though in most cases insects and humans have taken different routes to the same result,  with insects the behaviors must have an exclusively genetic basis: most insects, like beetles and flies, are solitary creatures whose behavior is not taught or influenced by parents or a society's needs.  Finding this basis could shed light on the similar genetic foundation of human behaviors.

There's no denying that Zuk is an entertaining writer, filling the conversational narrative with her dry humor and giving sections whimsical names like "Incest and the Solution to Physics Envy".  Her subjects are endlessly intriguing, and many a time I was left staring at a page in mute horror after reading descriptions of wasps who zombify roaches and led them into her lair  to be munched on by her little ones -- or of spiders who as babies suck blood from their mother's legs until she is too weak to move, at which point they devour her. Zuk is successful, though, in making the book more than voyeurism:  her chapter on how insects contribute to the study of 'sociogenomics'  added much to my knowledge of genetics, for instance. Not everything in a given species' genome consists of usable DNA, and if grasshoppers and other insects are any indication, some species carry far more junk than they do viable information.  Also of note are the chapters on social behavior, addressing questions of insect communication  and organization -- no one does court intrigue like ants sizing up potential queens, or consensus democracy like a hovering swarm of honeybees searching for a new home.

Sex on Six Legs will delight anyone with a curiosity about insects, and impress those who think little of them. It's look into a vast world that most people rarely see, one with lessons to teach about evolution and life as a whole.  The book will be available from Hughton Mifflin Harcourt in the first week of August.


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