The Butterfly Effect: Insects and the Making of the Modern World

Edward D. Melillo. Knopf, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3321-6
Historian Melillo (Strangers on Familiar Soil) devotes this intriguing and comprehensive work to “the long arc of productive relationships between insects and people.” The first of the book’s two sections, “Metamorphoses,” examines “how various cultures have come to understand our six-legged cousins over the past three millennia” and relied on them for certain basic goods. There is silk, for instance, which is produced by silkworms and became the driving force behind the Byzantine empire after the emperor had several eggs smuggled out of China. But there is also shellac, “a gummy substance manufactured by bugs,” whose earliest recorded use Melillo finds in the 4th-century BCE Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, and which, more recently, provided the material for the first phonograph records. In the book’s second part, “Hives of Modernity,” he shifts to the here and now, with discussions of global agriculture and food security. In two especially worthwhile sections, he discusses how fruit flies have provided useful test cases for genetics, and how entomophagy—the eating of insects—has emerged as a promising nutritional, environmental, and even gastronomical practice. Melillo’s fascinating survey makes a persuasive argument that some of the world’s smallest animals are also “bottomless reservoirs of possibility.” (Aug.)
Reviewed on : 04/08/2020
Release date: 08/18/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
Book - 978-1-5247-3322-3
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