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Originally published Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'Insectopedia': beauty and horror in the world of insects

In "Insectopedia,"British author/anthropologist Hugh Raffles delves into the fascinating, terrifying and thought-provoking world of insects. Raffles discusses his book Thursday, April 8, at Town Hall in Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Hugh Raffles

The author of "Insectopedia" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 at or 800-838-3006, and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.

In the late 1800s, the great entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre and a friend came across a curious sight. On the ground, they discovered a female wasp attacking a moth larva 15 times her weight.

Fabre wrote, "The huntress was on the spot at once, gripping him by the skin of his neck and holding tight in spite of his contortions. Perched on the monster's back, the Wasp bent her abdomen and deliberately, ... drove her lancet into ... each of the victim's segments, from the first to the last ... [She then] squeezes the brain between her mandibles, calculating every pinch ... And now the caterpillar, incapable of resistance, incapable of wishing to resist, is seized by the nape of the neck and dragged to the nest." It is no wonder Victor Hugo dubbed Fabre the "Homer of Insects."

Those who write about bugs often cite Fabre. He was a master at description and observation. Hugh Raffles, an anthropologist and author of "Insectopedia" (Pantheon, 465 pp., $29.95) also takes advantages of Fabre's colorful writings, and his colorful life, but he does so in an unusual and most engaging manner.

Raffle writes about Fabre as a way to explore evolution, for the Frenchman believed that insects acted on instinct and that this was "evolution's Achilles' heel, proof that species are fixed and immutable and have been so since the beginning," writes Raffles.

"Because ... how could intermediate stages exist for such extraordinarily complex and precisely calibrated behavior?" Fabre was wrong but in citing him, Raffles offers a novel way to discuss evolution.

This take exemplifies Raffles' observations on insects. Yes, they are incredibly interesting, beautiful and evolutionarily successful, but they also provide an original way to discuss topics as diverse as history, economics, popular culture, disease, and sexual perversion. (Don't worry, I won't mention specifics.)

As the title implies, Raffles organizes his book in an A to Z, encyclopedia-like manner, ranging from air to Kafka. The entries follow no set style with some mere vignettes, others lengthy discourses and a few personal meditations.

In addition to the fine writing, Raffles includes many intriguing drawings and illustrations, as well as a fascinating Notes section. Because of his manner of organization, there is little reason to read the book in order; you can simply open it anywhere and discover a new way to reflect on not only insects but people.

For example, consider the popularity of insect displays at museums. Raffles describes going to the Montreal Insectarium, where he observes that everyone was completely absorbed in the exhibits but then he realizes that he was basically in a mausoleum of insect corpses.

He observes how strange that we admire them only in death; if they came alive most of us would flee or crush them. And yet, insects "enter our bodies and make us shiver with apprehension. What other animal has this power over us?"

David B. Williams is the Seattle-based author of "Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology." Read his blog at

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