Values and Perceptions

by Dr. Steve Kellert, Yale University
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Increasing recognition of the importance of biological diversity for human well-being and even survival has grown considerably in recent years. This appreciation has been reflected in various publications focusing on the benefits of biological diversity for medicine, agriculture, industry, and even in human history and culture. Concern for conserving global biological diversity has been fostered as well by an awareness of increasing numbers of species endangerments and extinctions, particularly associated with widespread habitat destruction, especially in the moist tropical forests of the third world. The scope of this potential loss of biological diversity has been suggested by projections of tens if not hundreds of thousands of species extinctions in a relatively short time span.

The potential extinction of invertebrate life in this current global biodiversity crisis is suggested by the assertion that more than 90% of the planet’s currently estimated 30 million animal species are invertebrates, mainly arthropods. Despite the possible catastrophic extinction of invertebrate species, the general public and most policymakers appear unaware of how such a loss may affect human well-being. Although a number of recent publications have cited compelling evidence regarding the diverse human benefits derived from invertebrate life, these works appear to be largely unknown beyond a limited audience of scientists and environmental advocates.

This paper lists benefits humans derive from invertebrates, and explores the basis of prevailing public sentiments toward invertebrates, particularly feelings of aversion and anxiety regarding arthropods, mainly insects, and the implications of the this data for developing a strategy of invertebrate species conservation.

A wide variety of ecological, utilitarian, scientific, aesthetic and cultural values are found within invertebrates. Ecologically, invertebrates are responsible for ecosystem stabilization, energy and nutrient transfer, maintenance of trophic structures, plant reproduction, plant protection, and even the provision of major habitats for other organisms. They play many roles in ecological interaction including functions as herbivory, predation, parasitism, mutualism and competition? From a utilitarian perspective, insects have many values including pest and weed control, nutrient circulation and soil quality, waste decomposition, pollination and seed dispersal, human food, industrial and medicinal products, monitoring environmental quality and fashion and decorative applications. The sciences have also found many uses for various invertebrates: Taxonomic and systematic models; anatomical science inspirations; studies of mutualistic relationships, mimicry and adaptations; drosophila fruit fly aided hereditary, genetics, and natural selection research; and the birth of sociobiology.

Being selectively more specific, invertebrates are used as part of the human diet. Many nonwestern countries utilize other invertebrates for food such as locusts among Arab populations, or ants, termites, grasshoppers and beetle grubs among African societies. Honey is among the most important food byproducts obtained from invertebrates. In the United States, more than four million bee colonies produce over 90 thousand tons of honey annually, and total world honey production is estimated at greater than 884,000 tons. Another important commercial product derived from invertebrates is the is the silk from silkworms, dating from prehistoric times. Current annual production of silk is estimated at more than 30 million kilograms. Pearls represent another commercial use of invertebrates with a long historic tradition. In New Guinea, many villagers are currently engaged in the innovative commercialization of the spectacular lacewing butterflies. Taiwan exports several hundred million dollars of wild butterfly specimens annually. Less easy to document are various aesthetic, cultural and even spiritual benefits derived from invertebrates. Certain invertebrates, most notably butterfly and beetle species, have been used for various aesthetic and decorative purposes. Designs based on invertebrates have been employed in art, jewelry, fashion and other decorative motifs. Thousands of stamps currently display insects and other invertebrates. Modern film and photography have often focused on invertebrates as popular subjects of study.

Musical composition has been influenced by invertebrates. Insect songs have inspired many musicians such as Rimsky-Korsakov in his delightful `Flight of the Bumblebee’ reproducing the familiar hum of the bees and Joseph Strauss’ inspiration revealed in `Dragonfly.’ In Japan, cicadas and crickets are placed in small cages, like birds, and their songs are considered agreeable.” Frost points out, “we find insects mentioned frequently in the writings of poets and philosophers, and the folklore of nearly every country refers to them.”

Invertebrates as sources of spiritual inspiration are less amenable to demonstration, although an eloquent, albeit simple, statement of this value is implicit in the ancient nursery rhyme: “surely, wisdom is given to all living things, and the tiniest of creatures are teachers of kings.” Quammen notes in ancient Greece and Rome: “This link with the spiritual realm was applied to both groups within the Lepidoptera, moths as well as butterflies. Both…were delicate enough to suggest a pure being, freed of the carnal envelope. Both were known to perform a magical metamorphosis.”

*A particularly insightful section of Dr. Kellert’s paper defines a basic topology of public attitudes towards invertebrates and exposes potential reasons for prevalent societal anxiety, aversion, and antipathy. This topology was developed by Dr. Kellert in 1980.

AESTHETICS Primary interest in the physical attractiveness and symbolic appeal of invertebrates
HUMANISTIC Primary orientation one of strong emotional affection for invertebrate animals
MORALISTIC Primary concern for the right and wrong treatment of invertebreates, with strong ethical opposition to presumed cruelty towards invertebrate animals.
NATURALISTIC Primary interest in direct outdoor recreational contact and enjoyment of invertebrates.
DOMINIONISTIC Primary interest in the mastery and control of invertebrates.
ECOLOGISTIC Primary concern for interrelationships among invertebrates and other species, as well as between invertebrates and natural habitats.
NEGATIVISTIC Primary orientation a fear, dislike or indifference towards invertebrates.
UTILITARIAN Primary interest in the practical value of invertebrates or the subordination of invertebrates for the material benefit of humans.
SCIENTIFIC Primary interest in the physical attributes, taxonomic classification and biological functioning of invertebrates.

Dr. Kellert spends the rest of the paper suggesting reasons why so many people view most invertebrates with anxiety, aversion and antipathy. He interjects that this discussion is a preliminary review of material and urges the need for much more careful study before any useful conclusions can be drawn.

A critical question remains to what extent the general public recognizes, appreciates or understands these diverse benefits provided by invertebrates to human society and well-being. How do most people actually perceive and value invertebrates, as well as their conservation, and what is their current level of understanding and knowledge of these creatures? This paper first listed a variety of important ways human life is enhanced by invertebrate organisms; namely a range of ecological, utilitarian, scientific, aesthetic, and cultural benefits people derive from the spineless kingdom. Research into invertebrate knowledge and feelings towards invertebrate protection among various societal groups revealed a sobering limited appreciation by the general public. The inquiry also made evident a degree of displayed fear and aversion. Scientists and some conservation organization members were exceptions to this pattern, but these groups represent relatively small proportions of society. The overwhelming impression of the general public and farmers, on the other hand, was a view of invertebrates, especially arthropods, with strong feelings of anxiety, antipathy, and avoidance.

These sentiments, in all likelihood, represent formidable obstacles to developing an effective invertebrate species conservation strategy to meet the challenge of an estimated large-scale extinction crisis given current rates of global habitat destruction, particularly in the moist tropical forests. This dramatic decline in biological diversity will largely fall upon the roughly 90% of the animal kingdom consisting of invertebrates, mainly insects.

We will somehow need to engender a greater awareness, appreciation and understanding of invertebrates among the general public. In order to do so, however, we will need to obtain a better comprehension of the basis for prevailing negative sentiments toward invertebrates, especially arthropods.

A limited review of the scientific literature provides some insight regarding negative attitudes toward invertebrates, mainly insects and spiders. Hardy, for example, found, as we did, that, “public sentiment rarely favors insects.” He suggested a bell-shaped curve of human attitudes toward insects, with a small minority enjoying insects and spiders, a somewhat larger minority manifesting feelings of indifference, while the great majority harbored sentiments of apprehension, fear and outright phobic feelings. He found higher levels of anxiety toward invertebrates among children and females, based on data published by Marks and Agras.

A number of factors have been offered as a basis for human aversion and avoidance of insects and other invertebrates. A highly speculative explanation hypothesizes an innate fear of potentially dangerous insects, generalized to include many other invertebrates. This notion is based on the assumption that fear and avoidance of most arthropods has conveyed an evolutionary advantage over time resulting in a statistically greater manifestation in the human population. The spontaneous and often unprovoked expression of this fear represents a form of biologically “prepared” learning, a conditioned response occurring with minimal stimulus. The well-known psychologist Arne Ohman, for example, has suggested: “animal fear originates in a predatory defense system who function is to allow animals to avoid and escape predators… It is appropriate to speak about biologically prepared learned… likely to require only minimal input… to result in very persistent responses that are not easily extinguished.” Limited corroboration of this innate tendency is suggested in a study by Schneirla where the occurrence of “ugly, slimy, erratic” moving animals, including many invertebrates, provoked withdrawal responses among vertebrate neonates, despite no overt or obvious threat.

For many individuals, the association of invertebrates, particularly those linked with human habitation and disease has been a particular factor in extreme aversion to various species. The modern emphasis on high standards of hygiene, sterility of the home environment, and contemporary theories of disease transmission certainly have exacerbated these fears, particularly in the highly urbanized environments of industrial societies. And, indeed, an entire specialty in modern medicine and public health has been developed around the role of various invertebrates in human disease and epidemic conditions.

A less complicated explanation of avoidance of invertebrates is suggested by the notion of human alienation from creatures so different and unlike our own species. Levi, for example, in speculating on human aversion to beetles suggested: “It seems to me that…the sensation of extraneousness or alienation (prevails): these small flying fortresses… have nothing to do with us, they represent a totally different solution of the survival problem.”

Few respondents regarded invertebrates as capable of feelings beyond pain, with little in the way of consciousness or rational action. Despite this prevailing sentiment, Lockwood offers considerable evidence to suggest that based on criteria of “language” communication, problem solving, and learning, many insects can be regarded as organisms exhibiting consciousness. Still, as he admits, few people recognize these human-like traits and “these seems to be an overall aversion to recognizing insects as organisms deserving of moral consideration.”

A possible basis of human alienation from invertebrates may be suggested by Samways when he notes: “with insects… there are so many of them. Also… they are Lilliputians in our much larger world.” In other words, they seem alien from us for the simple reason of their existence on a fundamentally different ecological scale, both spatially and temporally. Spatially, this gulf is reflected in huge divergence in numbers and size, as well as at times a territorial overlap that suggests to many the uninvited violation of human space by threatening and alien creatures, mostly arthropods. Temporally, the relatively short life span and extraordinary reproductive capacity of most invertebrates serves as further sources of alienation for most humans.

Dr. James Hillman, in a classic essay, “Why we hate Bugs?,” provides some psychological insight regarding why these differences between humans and invertebrate scale and behavior might result in feelings of alienation and aversion. Reviewing a long history of prejudicial attitudes and antagonistic behavior of humans toward arthropods, Hillman remarks, “what we call the progress of Western civilization from the ant’s eye level is but the forward stride of the great exterminator.” Hillman suggests four reasons for human psychological aversion and antipathy toward invertebrates, mainly insects and spiders, found among most people in Western society.

First, he emphasizes the “multiplicity” of the invertebrate world, which he suggests threatens our fondly cherished human notions of individuality and independence. He suggests the idea of a bee hive that can include 50,000 individuals, or a large ant colony of half million ants, or an acre of soil with 65 million insects, or beetle species numbering more than one million, represents a fundamental challenge to our sense of personal integrity and individual oneness. He remarks: “Imagining insects numerically threatens the individualized fantasy of a unique and unitary human being. Their very numbers indicate insignificance of us as individuals.”

A second basis for anxiety and aversion, Hillman refers to as the “monstrosity” of most invertebrates from a human perspective. In this regard, he notes the tendency of most people to associate invertebrates, especially insects and spiders, with metaphors of madness and mindlessness. The human presumption, as noted, is to assume invertebrates as incapable of feelings and rationale reflection, and many common terms of insanity employ insect names, while images of madness often involve visions of insects and other arthropods. As Hillman suggests: “Bug-eyed, spidery, worm, roach, blood sucker, louse, going buggy, locked-up in the bughouse – these are all terms of contempt supposedly characterizing inhuman traits… To become an insect is to become a mindless creature without the warm blood of feeling.” A third explanation Hillman offers for dislike of invertebrates originates in their radical “autonomy” from human will and control. A particularly disturbing aspect of their independence or indifference to human hegemony is the willingness to invade human space in unexpected and uninvited fashions.

Finally, Hillman suggests a disturbing element about invertebrates for most humans stems from the quality of “mystery” surrounding them. As noted, invertebrates represent radically different behavioral and morphological strategies in the struggle for survival which for most humans provokes considerable uncertainty, confusion, and a sense of “otherworldliness.” This sense of mystery can be a basis of curiosity, interest, and even wonder, although the more typical reaction is one of disdain and fear of the unknown. For most humans, invertebrates are largely unfathomable and alien.

Hillman suggests conservation of wildlife, especially invertebrates, will necessitate a far greater understanding of why we react with hostile and negative feelings toward various creatures, particularly insects and spiders. To find our commonality with the animal world in its widest diversity, “we must start (with animals) not in their splendor – the horned stag, the yellow lion and the great bear, or even old faithful `spot’ – but with those we fear the worse – the bugs.”

To reverse the current trend toward increasing impoverishment of the planet’s species diversity, we will need to assume a more appreciative attitude toward the biological matrix of so-called “lower” life forms represented by the invertebrates. A more compelling and convincing rationale will be required of the extraordinary contributions made by the “spineless kingdom” to human welfare and survival. A far more effective translation of the diverse values of invertebrates will be needed, as well as a better understanding of the deeply rooted anxieties prevalent in our culture toward much of the invertebrate world. This should not result in a diminished emphasis on invertebrate science and biology. It will necessitate, however, an enhanced recognition that public education and public policy are equally essential ingredients in the creation of an effective and meaningful invertebrate conservation strategy.