Insects and Human Life

Insects and Human Life

Insects and Human Life

Insects and Human Life


This pioneering book looks at the importance of insects to culture. While in the developed West a good deal of time and money may be spent trying to exterminate insects, in other cultures human-insect relations can be far more subtle and multi-faceted. Like animals, insects may be revered or reviled - and in some tribal communities insects may be the only source of food available. How people respond to, make use of, and relate to insects speaks volumes about their culture.In an effort to get to the bottom of our vexed relationship with the insect world, Brian Morris spent years in Malawi, a country where insects proliferate and people contend. In Malawi as in many tropical regions, insects have a profound impact on agriculture, the household, disease and medicine, and hence on oral literature, music, art, folklore, recreation and religion. Much of the complexity of human-insect relations rests on paradox: insects may represent the source of contagion, but they are also integral to many folk remedies for a wide range of illnesses. They may be at the root of catastrophic crop failure, but they can also be a form of sustenance.Weaving science with personal observations, Morris demonstrates a profound and intimate knowledge of virtually every aspect of human-insect relations. Not only is this book extraordinarily useful in terms of the more practical side of entomology, it also provides a wealth of information on the role of insects in cultural production. Malawian proverbs alone provide many such delightful examples - 'Bemberezi adziwa nyumba yake' ('The carpenter bee knows his own home').This final volume in Morris' trilogy on Malawi's animal and insect worlds is certain to become a classic study of uncharted territory - the insect world that surrounds us and how we relate to it.Praise for The Power of Animals:Although based upon examination of a single culture, Morris incorporates ecological and anthropological concepts that expand this study of attitudes to nature to create a comprehensive ethnographic analysis, both informative and very readable. ChoiceThe Power of Animals deserves to become an anthropological landmark, setting the stage for a new generation of ethnographies that give proper weight and significance to peoples interactions and interrelations with other animals and the natural world. The cultural depth and richness that emerges from Morriss approach makes other comparable studies seem shallow in comparison. AnthrozoosPraise for Morris Animals and Ancestors:Morris defends with great wit and intelligence his philosophical background and the methodology he uses well researched, well edited, offers a valuable bibliography, and is written in a language that attracts attention, avoiding academic jargon an example of ethnography at its best. Zeitschrift fr Ethnologie


I have always experienced an intense joy in the natural world, particularly in regard to what the Taoists described as the ‘ten thousand things’–the myriad of life-forms that inhabit the earth–for me insects, plants, fungi, frogs, birds and mammals having an especial interest. The first book I ever owned was called Look and Find Out Birds (by W. P. Westell), and the first article I ever published was entitled ‘Denizen of the Evergreen Forest’ (in African Wildlife 1962), describing the habits and life history of a rather rare pouched rat Beamys hindei. I have thus never considered myself a ‘real’ anthropologist–nowadays they all seem to be obsessed with language, metaphor and hermeneutics. I belong, rather, to a tribe of scholars who became extinct in the nineteenth century; they described themselves as ‘naturalists’, as students of natural history. My intellectual tendencies and aspirations thus tend to be fundamentally empirical, realist and historical. That's why my favourite authors are all orientated towards history and biology–Darwin, Kropotkin, Dubos, Mayr, Jonas and Bookchin.

This, my latest book, is about insects, or rather, about the relationship between humans and insects in Malawi. It reflects an interest that goes back a long way, as I was an avid reader of the essays of Jean-Henri Fabre in my youth, and I made notes and sketches on insects in Malawi when I lived at Zoa and Limbuli during the years 1958–1965. I actually discovered then an insect new to science– Hemimerus morrisii, which, believe it or not, is a parasitic, flightless earwig that lives in the nest of the pouched rat. As it has no relevance at all to the lives of Malawians, this insect is not mentioned in this book. One of my earliest published articles in anthropology was in fact an analysis of Navajo ethnoentomology (1979), which explored the relationship between the Navajo classification of insects and their symbolism.

This present study is specifically based on ethnoentomological research undertaken in 2000–2001, which was sponsored by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. For this support I am grateful.

As research is always a collective enterprise, I would very much like to thank the following people for supporting and encouraging in various ways my research studies in Malawi.

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