It is said that history is written by the victors – but that is true only if the victors can write. In Planet of the Bugs, Scott Richard Shaw makes a compelling and amusing case to correct what he proposes is a “human-centrist bias” of the evolutionary history of life on Earth.
Our fascination with our own origins, he claims, has created a false distinction between geological ages that gives undue importance to the organisms linked to our own evolutionary history. What’s more, it ignores the abundance of invertebrate life that “since the onset of animal complexity…[has] been the singular successful group”, Shaw argues.
He guides the reader through a chronological account of the evolution of arthropods, including insects, spiders, centipedes, shrimp and crayfish, from the undeniably successful sea-dwelling trilobites of the Cambrian age to the rise of insects in all the rich diversity we see on our planet today.
The success of arthropods was in part due to their resilient exoskeleton and their ability to rapidly diversify and occupy new emerging habitats; they followed the plants out of the oceans, and were the first to claim the skies. Shaw even proposes that flying insects may have been a major selective force in the evolution of flight in dinosaurs.
But behind the witty prose lies a serious message. The triumph of insects is inseparably connected to the success and progression of almost all life on the planet in some way or another. Insects have co-evolved with plants and animals and can act as friend or foe, spanning all lifestyles from predator to parasite to pollinator. So entangled are they in the fate of many cornerstone species that the decline of insect groups has put many ecosystems at risk of collapse, including several that are crucial for human survival. We may be somewhat flippant about their influence on our own evolutionary history, but we can be sure that the demise of insects would have catastrophic consequences for our future.
Shaw decides to let loose in the book’s postscript, putting forward his own “buggy universe hypothesis”, in which he ponders the controversial idea that “the living universe is full of bugs”. The sheer quantity of insect species on our planet implies that they are a probable and predictable trajectory for evolved life to take. He does not suggest that any insect-like aliens would strongly resemble what we have on Earth, but that they would likely share comparable traits that have made arthropods so successful, such as a robust exoskeleton and adaptable lifestyle, and might well fill similar alien niches as our insects do on Earth.
Eloquent and very knowledgeable, Shaw is also, perhaps more importantly when it comes to a good read, a storyteller capable of painting a rich portrayal of prehistoric lands filled with weird and wonderful bugs and beasts. His captivating and comical writing had me marvelling at detailed accounts of giant dragonfly-like beasts with two-foot wingspans, and laughing out loud at aptly named sections such as “Secretive societies with an anal fixation”. I am not, it is fair to say, a lover of things that creep and crawl, but looking through Shaw’s eyes, I found myself appreciating their place in my world a little more. Moreover, as he made me realise, it is not my world at all, but theirs.
Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects
By Scott Richard Shaw
University of Chicago Press, 256pp, £19.50
ISBN 9780226163611 and 3758 (e-book)
Published 23 September 2014