Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, & Language From the Insect World by Marlene Zuk
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Animals can tell us much about ourselves. We can study their gene, their reactions to stimuli, their behaviors in order to better understand the vagaries of humanity. Studying adorable mammals tends to cause anthropomorphizing, which can confuse results. Studying insects, however, does not tend to result in any romantic notions, which is part of the reason that Marlene Zuk is so fascinated by them; although she finds them captivating in their own right as well. In Sex on Six Legs, Zuk endeavors to share with the rest of us myriad things she believes make insects so worth our attention.
Insects play a special role in our use of animals to help us understand ourselves, as I argue throughout this book. Because they are rarely cared for by their parents, and usually live relatively solitary lives without the input of others, the behavior they exhibit as adults is largely controlled by their genes. -p. 143
Zuk is extremely successful both in her attempts to make insects interesting and to shed light on just what complex creatures they are, and just how much many of their behaviors mirror our own. For example, Zuk discusses in the first chapter the extremely few species that engage in true teaching, one of the hallmarks of which is that information is passed on at some cost to the teacher, simply allowing children to mimic actions is not sufficient to count. Surprisingly, none of our simian relatives meet this distinction:
That teaching happens in ants and not monkeys or apes is unsettling for the same reason I love studying insects: it’s all about getting to the same destination with different modes of transportation. -p. 33
And who knew just how complicated bee dance language is?
The length of the run is correlated with the distance of the food from the hive, while the angle of the bee’s body relative to vertical indicates the angle between the sun and the food source…. In other words, bees seem to have symbolic representations for the distance and direction of the food, which fits many if not all of the criteria for an actual language. -p. 214
Sex on Six Legs is not merely didactic, however, but entertaining as well. Zuk brings a measure of her own personality into the book, recounting her fondness for earwigs and other insects, as well as a good degree of humor.
At some level, everyone with siblings understands the urge to murder them. -p. 167
Sex on Six Legs is an incredibly interesting and educational book, although readers do run the risk of seeming insufferable spouting off insect knowledge to anyone who will listen. Zuk succeeds in granting a new appreciation for the six-legged creatures, although it doesn’t make me want to see them in my house any more than I did before.
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