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Review: Sex on Six Legs, Marlene Zuk

sex on six legsThe insect kingdom is an incredible place, and many of us humans hardly think about them unless they’re annoying us, in which case we promptly squash them and forget about it.  But insects are unbelievably diverse; new species are being uncovered virtually every day.  Since they are so different from us, insects provide us the unique opportunity to study genetics without reading human traits into them.  We simply can’t ascribe an ant human emotions, certainly not as easily as we can with monkeys or dogs or lions.  Zuk uses this perspective to explore the sexual and familial relationships of insects and apply her conclusions to help us examine the human condition and what really is special about us – and them.

The non-fiction bug has bitten me hard, so I thought it was only appropriate to read non-fiction about insects!  Stupid jokes aside, this was a genuinely fascinating book in ways I never suspected it would be. Marlene Zuk makes biology incredibly interesting, using examples from a variety of insect species to demonstrate interesting facts about genetics that I’d never really have thought about.  One of my favorite chapters was on insect parenting, where she goes into depth on the vastly different aspects of insect parenting, including how some insects are more attentive to their young than some cuddlier creatures.  She does pull from many other species when comparing with insects, which I think helps the book fit in nicely with a lot of things that casual readers already know.

I also loved that she used insects as a means of questioning what precisely it means to be human.  Outside of consciousness, which is impossible to really define as we have no idea what causes or even if everyone’s is the same, much of human behavior is replicated elsewhere.  For example, bees communicate with each other in what is for all intents and purposes a language, and if we narrow the definition of language enough to exclude them it becomes pretty clear that we’re doing it solely to make ourselves look special.  Bees confer on decisions, like when moving to a new hive, do waggle dances to show each other where food is, and can fly in large groups to unfamiliar destinations without losing stragglers.  It’s very sophisticated behavior for such tiny insects.

Zuk also spends some time on gender roles and how our assumptions of insect genders throughout the years have reflected on our own biases.  Even now, many of her students find it impossible to believe that certain insects, like many of the bees you see flying around or army ants, are female.  The queen bee was for years assumed to be a male bee – of course, no one even postulated that it could be female until one was dissected for evidence.  She shows how ingrained gender roles still are in our society, an unfortunate reality that was excellently illustrated in this case.

She also spends quite a bit of time explaining evolution and how insects may have turned out to be this way.  I really appreciated this – I haven’t read much about evolution and I don’t feel I learned much in school, so having such a fantastic explanation alongside interesting traits that seem improbable was incredibly helpful.  Among other things, she helps to explain how different “personalities” can have their own advantages – meaning both work from a selection standpoint – and she also goes into some experiments done on artificial selection and the advantages some really peculiar aspects of insect life might have, especially in light of their extremely short lifespans.  It felt quite comprehensive and detailed to me, but I was never at a loss for understanding.  I felt like I’d learned something once I’d finished.

Even if you’ve never looked at a bug and wondered whether it was male or female, Sex on Six Legs is a genuinely fascinating book.  Its title is provocative, which I hope gets it the attention it deserves, but the content is so much more than a look at insect sex.  Zuk uses insects to help define our own world, imparting a great deal of biological knowledge and wisdom along the way.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from Netgalley.

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