Max Barclay is Collection Manager of Beetles at the Natural History Museum in London, where he manages a dedicated team of curators, and some 10 million specimens going back to the voyages of Charles Darwin, Captain Cook and beyond, consulted each year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world. A life-long naturalist, Max began his career as a volunteer at Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust when Gerald Durrell was still alive. He believes in maintaining the relevance of natural history and collecting in a world increasingly disconnected from wildlife, and in enthusing the next generation to understand and engage with the natural world. He is a frequent speaker on the subject, and his recent TEDx talk is available here .
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“All discussion on the environment will at some point, quite rightly, centre on education. We not only have to do something about the way we treat the environment, but we have to educate our children with regards [to] environmental issues.”
Pip Howard 2014.
The sentiment above begins a recent guest post by Pip Howard on Mark Avery’s ‘Standing up for Nature’ blog. I agreed with it so much that I started reading the rest of the blog, nodding at most of the author’s points, and with my finger hovering over the ‘retweet’ button, when unexpectedly, a comment about falling standards of public education in Britain and a decline in engagement with nature, turned into a complaint against an educational product with which I am proud to have been involved, the ‘Real Life Bugs’ magazine.
‘Real Life Bugs’ is a mail order series of 85 magazines. Each issue covers a particular group of ‘bugs’ (or invertebrates, if you prefer) and discusses their life history, behaviour, distribution, habitat requirements and other aspects of their natural history in some detail, including distribution maps, diet, threats, etc. The product is endorsed by National Geographic Magazine and the Natural History Museum, and in my capacity as a senior entomologist at the latter institution, one of my jobs is to fact-check every issue, to make sure distributions, identifications, scientific names etc. are correct. A verified, factual, magazine that teaches children about insects, and uses scientific names, sounds like every naturalist’s dream, so what’s the problem? Well, the objection is that every issue of the magazine comes with a dead ‘bug’ encased in a clear block of resin, so every child subscribing will be implicated in the deaths of 85 invertebrates. Each issue has 10 pages of detailed information, and in my opinion the dead ‘bug’ is an excellent accompaniment to that. We use similar resin-coated insects in the Museum’s family activities, because unlike live or dried insect specimens, children can handle them without damage. The resin is sufficiently clear that all external detail can be seen, and a hand lens or microscope can be used for closer examination.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the opportunity to handle a specimen may be worth a thousand pictures: nothing else can communicate the same sense of scale or detail. I know from daily experience the power of natural history collections to inspire awe and fascination. A collection like the one this magazine provides, in the hands of a curious young person, is an invaluable learning tool, and likely to engender a serious interest in a certain percentage of subscribers. The long term educational benefits of raising awareness of insects, and giving children the opportunity to see them up close, justify the invertebrates killed for each subscription, especially when compared with other activities that result in the death of a similar number of invertebrates (for example, buying a packet of frozen prawns). However, Mr. Howard describes the magazine as an ‘Orwellian Nightmare’, which is not an expression one hears applied to the frozen shellfish section at the local supermarket.
So, why such different reactions to the same thing, from two people who are ‘on the same side’? I don’t know Mr. Howard, but he and I clearly share a concern for the environment and recognise that an environmentally aware ‘next generation’ is part of the solution; we’re of similar age, grew up with the same influences and both went into jobs connected with nature. Clearly the discrepancy between my enthusiasm and his hostility towards the same product requires examination.
Mr Howard is surprised by the Natural History Museum’s involvement with this product. He shouldn’t be, the Museum’s Mission Statement is “to maintain and develop our collections, and use them to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world”. To paraphrase, we use dead specimens to increase knowledge about and inspire appreciation of nature, a mission that is very compatible with endorsement of ‘Bugs’ magazine. In 2007, when ‘Bugs’ was first launched, the Museum wrote and circulated a letter explaining this compatibility, but seeing as this discussion is still taking place seven years later, I think it is necessary to discuss and where possible understand and counter the reasons for hostility to the magazine, and the use of dead specimens for education in general. To do that we need to look at our complicated relationship with the natural world, and why, when and how we deem it appropriate to kill other living things.
Some people probably dislike the fact that the magazine is commercially produced. They feel it reduces a once-living creature to the level of a toy, sold on the front of a magazine like a candy bar or model car. However, we don’t live in a world full of publicly funded educational products, and we frequently need to look to private companies to fill the gap: if you buy your kids a dictionary or a calculator, someone will make money, but that doesn’t devalue the educational worth of the product itself. In this case the commercial company has gone a step further, and teamed up with a public scientific institute to ensure that the quality of the information they sell is acceptable. I, personally, would rather educational information about insects was available for a fee, than not at all.
A prime consideration when we decide whether it is acceptable to kill something is the rarity of the organism in question, and the effect of its killing on its population or ecosystem. The rarest are protected by law as well as by public opinion. The killing of birds of prey or pine martens quite rightly causes much more outrage than the killing of pigeons or rats, although the species do not differ in sentience. This is as it should be, because there is a real possibility of permanently losing populations of raptors or carnivora, while for the time being at least, the fecundity and opportunism of rats and pigeons make them robust to a certain amount of persecution. Insects, with very few exceptions (usually long-lived, flightless, island forms) are extremely fecund, and good at withstanding predation, especially of adults. Being near the bottom of most food webs, their populations are huge, and they have adapted to being eaten in enormous numbers by a large proportion of the birds, bats, spiders and other creatures with which they share their habitats. Anyone who has attempted to control clothes moths, aphids or bedbugs by selective killing of individual adults, will soon realise the futility of any such activity.
The insects and other invertebrates used in the magazine are not rare species, and come from a variety of sources. Some (crickets, locusts, scorpions etc.) are farmed; there are huge invertebrate farms, producing live and dried food for pets, and even novelty high protein ‘insect flour’ for humans. Others are ‘ranched’, which involves putting aside a piece of rainforest in a tropical country and periodically harvesting adult insects of abundant, commercially viable species. The key here is ‘putting aside a piece of rainforest’ and this trade has led to the preservation of patches of forest (with all their inhabitants) from which insects can be collected for sale, and which in the absence of such a trade, would long ago have been cut down for timber or to use the land for something else. I have discussed this phenomenon here, where I called the giant, commercially collected longhorn beetle Titanus giganteus a ‘guardian of the rainforest’. In many species (e.g. in scarabs), the damage to the population from collecting is minimised further because only males are collected, not for any conscious conservation reason, but because they are larger, with bigger horns, and are the only sex attracted to lights.
So, the likely environmental impact of the use of insect specimens by the magazine is negligible, and there may be some benefits to tropical communities and ecosystems through a trade which encourages preservation of patches of tropical rainforest. In fact, in terms of number of insects killed, the manufacture of the paper for each magazine is probably many times more significant. If the magazine had, instead of an insect, given away a candy bar made using palm oil, for example, the environmental consequences would have been far greater, but probably nobody would have complained. Palm oil, found in many products, is almost always grown on former rainforest land, and is implicated in the destruction of huge swathes of Asian jungle along with all its inhabitants.
Outside the environmental considerations, there are moral/ethical factors to take into account. Most people have a view on when and why it is acceptable to kill other organisms. Personal views vary between individuals, from complete indifference to other living things at one extreme, to a concerted effort to minimise harm done at the other. For organisms that are common, or farmed, a popular view is that killing for so-called ‘necessity’ (meaning food, clothing etc.) is acceptable, while killing for ‘pleasure’ (entertainment, sport etc.) is not. Hence a lot of people wear leather and eat beef, but don’t approve of bullfighting. Although all three activities involve killing the same widespread species of domestic animal, the last is more widely condemned, partly because it is done for pleasure.
It is primary a concern when the quest for knowledge is classed with ‘pleasure’ rather than ‘necessity’; I mentioned earlier how killing 85 invertebrates for a subscription to the magazine shocks some people who are not shocked by buying a packet of 85 frozen prawns. The prawns (quite often not sustainably harvested) are considered acceptable because they are ‘food’, though if we are honest, few people in the developed world would suffer from hunger if they couldn’t get a prawn sandwich; we eat prawns because we like the taste. Similarly many people wear leather because they find it more stylish or comfortable than the multitude of man-made fibres, so the line between ‘necessity’ and ‘pleasure’ is, on inspection, not as clear as we might like it to be. However (with notable exceptions where excessive cruelty or rarity is concerned, e.g. shark fins, some furs), most people, even those who are generally opposed to killing, will tolerate it for food or clothing. For a start, it is difficult to meaningfully oppose something which is so universal, so ancestral, as eating animals and dressing in their skins. Education, unfortunately, is a different matter, it is not so universal or deeply ingrained as a ‘need’ in our primal psyche, and so more people are willing to dispense with it. This came starkly home to me when I was a zoology undergraduate, and a large group of students staged a protest against a chicken dissection. At the same time, the student cafeteria (which sold more chickens in a day than the laboratory dissected in a year) continued its business unmolested. Condemnation of the lab and not the canteen is inexplicable, unless the protesters felt that education was a mere luxury, not important enough to merit the deaths of the chickens. Regretfully, I ascribe the same priorities, conscious or subconscious, to those who object to the ‘Bugs’ magazine (unless they feel the same way about using invertebrates for food).
If society makes the decision that killing for nourishing the body is acceptable, but for nourishing the mind is not, we lurch toward the end of the age of reason. If nature, and information about nature, is made less and less accessible to the young (even with the best of intentions) nature will soon become irrelevant to them. One of the greatest environmental challenges we face is the risk of a next generation of consumers who are uninformed about and indifferent to the natural world.
If nature is going to remain relevant, we need to recognise that the instinctive and unconsidered gut reaction ‘killing insects is bad!’ can be as unjustified and problematic as other gut reactions about invertebrates (like ‘Yuck!’, ‘kill it with fire!’). Such emotional reactions probably don’t justify detailed response. Except, that is, when they are presented in a discussion about crucial topics like conservation and education.
In the end, we will only conserve what we care about, we will only care about what we know, and we will only know what we have had the opportunity to learn.