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Life in the Undergrowth
by David Atttenborough
Princeton University Press, 288 pages, $29.95

There’s an ancient human dream to be tiny: to make a hammock from a leaf and sup on nectar, to soar on a falcon’s back. This longing turns up in the folklore of fairies and the wee people, and its guises are sometimes charming, sometimes malign. Patrick Leigh Fermor tells of Voodoo adepts who allegedly “reduce themselves to infinitesimal size and go rolling about the countryside in calabashes,” intent on dark mischief. Jonathan Swift tapped into this deep vein of fantasy in Gulliver’s Travels––hence, against the grain of his satiric intent, the children’s editions that consist largely of Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput.

Thanks to the marvels of technology it is now possible to live this dream in another way. Flipping through the pages of a beautifully produced study of fossil invertebrates from Princeton University Press, I came across a Silurian trilobite that might have provided a breastplate for an archaic pre-Lilliputian warrior. Better yet, on the dust-jacket of David Attenborough’s splendid Life in the Undergrowth, a creature that turns out to be a damselfly appears to be sizing up the reader as it pauses, front legs arrested in a judo-like stance, perhaps interrupted at tea. Enormous blue eyes frame a satisfyingly alien face, fringed by spiky, hair-like tufts and elegantly arched antennae. The effect is to suggest an encounter, one consciousness meeting another.

Attenborough has been exploring the natural world for decades in a succession of BBC documentaries and accompanying books. Life in the Undergrowth, the companion volume to a series that aired in Britain late last year, focuses on invertebrates. In practice, while he does give some attention to scorpions and slugs and other assorted spineless creatures, Attenborough is principally concerned with insects.

Like several recent books in the same vein (Thomas Eisner’s For Love of Insects and Piotr Nasrecki’s The Smaller Majority, for example), Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth explicitly sets out to change the way in which people see and think about all manner of creeping things that creepeth upon the earth, as Leviticus puts it, and some that fly, too.

“We are greatly prejudiced by our size,” Attenborough writes. “We find it very difficult to believe that an animal that is many thousands times smaller than ourselves can have anything in any way comparable to our own motives, or to experience [ sic ] anything that resembles our basic emotions of fear and hunger, let alone aggression or sexual excitement. And until recently science abetted such thoughts. Bees and blowflies, beetles and butterflies were mere automata, mindless robots reacting automatically to the simplest stimuli. To credit them with anything else was unjustified and scientifically disreputable anthropomorphism.”

Attenborough overstates a bit in his passion to make his case. A creature “many thousands times smaller than ourselves” would be very tiny indeed. Imagine the female wolf spider, for example (shown carrying her young in a cluster on her abdomen), ten times her normal size. You would not want to meet her crawling on your bed. Then imagine her enlarged by ten again. At a hundred times her normal size, she is a vision from a nightmare.

No doubt it is true that one component of the average human’s low regard for insects has to do with “size prejudice.” This must give some of the force to the insult––“Insect!”––that one comes across now and then in old novels, especially translations from French, where the intent is to belittle the victim, impressing him with his utter insignificance. But we have to set against this the fascination of the small, so that in itself, the size of insects doesn’t explain much about human attitudes toward them. And yes, Attenborough is right to suggest that the perception of insects as “automata” is a factor, too––though Jonathan Edwards, who wrote a treatise on spiders as a teenager, was sure that they took pleasure in being borne aloft on the filaments they had spun.

Oddly, though, Attenborough doesn’t go on to consider other prejudices that he will need to counter if he is going to make his case. Return for a moment to the female wolf spider. The lumpy white ball in which she carries her babies has a texture that most people would find disgusting. Many of the creatures superbly photographed in Life in the Undergrowth have qualities that provoke repulsion. In The Smaller Majority, Piotr Nasrecki argues, not very persuasively, that such reactions are largely learned rather than instinctive, but at least he addresses the question.

Attenborough aims to persuade first through the detail and intimacy of his account of insect life: the female bumble bee’s patient construction of the chamber in which she lays her eggs; the cooperative relationship between African acacias and the ants that make “mansions” in the “bloated and hollow” bases of the tree’s protective spines (and sting the muzzles of grazing predators, driving them away); the cunning design of the mole cricket’s burrow, which amplifies the male’s mating song so that, “on a windless night, he can be heard from nearly half a mile away.” The book is packed with such deftly rendered observation.

Occasionally, Attenborough steps back from his narrative to frame it in some way. One recurring theme is the evolutionary “success” of insects. In an earlier book-cum-documentary, The Life of Birds, he awarded the laurel to birds as the most “successful” creatures on Earth.

Here we read of insects that they are “by far the most successful and varied of all invertebrate groups.” The idea seems to be that insects compel respect because they have survived and indeed flourished (with the implication, I suppose, that less successful life-forms merit contempt).

On other occasions, the appeal is aesthetic: “In the whole animal kingdom there are no life cycles more complex and improbable than those that involve insects.” And finally, in Attenborough’s peroration, there is a curious conceit that seems to be popping up all over these days: “Were mammals to disappear from the earth, the forests and their myriad invertebrate inhabitants would continue to flourish as they have done for more than four hundred million years. But were those invertebrates to disappear, the earth’s ecosystems would collapse.... Dung and corpses would no longer be recycled. The creatures that perform these essential services are still around us, unnoticed in the undergrowth. Many are within a few inches of our feet whenever we tread on earth, usually unregarded. We would do well to remember them.”

Well, yes. And if a catastrophic cosmic event were to make the earth uninhabitable for the creatures that currently dwell on our planet, the rocks would continue to flourish as they have for a very long time. Then they would be really successful.

Somehow, in setting out to restore a sense of proportion, a much needed reminder that life exists outside the television screen and the computer monitor and the printed page, Attenborough has gotten tangled up in unexamined contradictions. Even as he’s evoking insect life in terms that recall the domesticity of The Wind in the Willows, he wants to write about the natural world as if he had access to it independently of our perception of it in human terms––as if he were capable of seeing the Insect-in-Itself instead of the insect as seen by a man.

But the encounter suggested by the extraordinary cover photograph is illusory. We can see a damselfly, but who knows what the damselfly sees? We imagine the encounter as if we were reduced to his Lilliputian scale, but there is no natural world in which such an encounter could take place. It happens in the human imagination.

Attenborough emphasizes the great continuum of life, capacious enough to include insects and humans both, but fails to acknowledge that we value insects not because we are like them––we seek food and sex as they do, we have offspring, we work together and fight, we die––but because we are different, different from them and from all other creatures even as we are akin. He knows this, no doubt, but there’s no place for it in his cobbled-together system where evolutionary success and reverence for life uneasily coexist.

And where, by the way, is the tsetse fly? Why in this book is there so little reckoning with the fearsome damage insects do to humans? There is only one human face in Life in the Undergrowth. It is the face of a young man in Senegal, in the midst of a swarm of locusts, “consuming every edible plant in their path,” the caption says. The young man is smiling––admiring, perhaps, the locusts’ great skill.

As Attenborough writes, “Insects were not only the first creatures into the air, but to this day no other organisms exploit the freedoms and opportunities of that world with greater virtuosity than they do.”

If I had any influence on seminary education, I would like to see a course where students read some first-rate theology of creation––along with Attenborough and Eisner and Nasrecki, and maybe E.O. Wilson on ants thrown in for good measure. Too much talk about Creation is divorced from the messy particulars. Too much talk about insects is divorced entirely from their Creator. It would be good to bring them together.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.