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

Knopf. Aug. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781524733216. $27.95. NAT HIST
Following the “long arc of productive relationships,” Melillo (history, environmental studies, Amherst Coll.; Strangers on Familiar Soil) examines the intertwined histories of humans and insects, showing first how insect-derived commodities with ancient origins (shellac, silk, and a deep-red dye called cochineal) became key trade goods in European imperial economies. The wide appeal of these substances, along with their varied applications, lasted until modern “Synthetic Age” substitutes—vinyl, nylon, and aniline dyes—were invented, and then had a resurgence when artificial products proved to be structurally inferior and even toxic. The book’s second part examines how insects have contributed to modern life, as models for laboratory research, as crop pollinators, and as a potential food source. While our six-legged cousins are this work’s indubitable stars, humans have strong supporting roles: e.g., as intrepid entomological explorers, cunning “biopirates,” or groundbreaking scientists. Melillo also reveals how people far from the center of political and economic power in India, China, Mexico, and beyond became the “unofficial entomologists and informal botanists of the age of discovery.”
VERDICT Melillo introduces many little-known facts and moments of insight, making this an engaging and often surprising read for those interested in environmental history.
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