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paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

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Why are biology classes ignoring insects?

A new content analysis of college biology textbooks finds that they have changed over the years to focus less and less on insects: A “College Textbooks Largely Overlook the Most Common Animals”.

From 1906-1920, introductory biology textbooks included an average of 32.6 pages devoted to insects, accounting for about 8.8 percent of the total pages. From 2000-2016, the textbooks devoted an average of 5.67 pages to insects, or only 0.59 percent of the total text.
“This is problematic because it puts students at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how ecosystems work; they have very little background on key species,” Landin says. “And, in the long term, it means students may lack the information they need to identify population shifts that could have significant effects on ecosystems – including effects with ramifications for human health and well-being.”

Years ago, I did a seminar for graduate students in genetics. I asked them, “How many of you work with model organisms?” Everyone’s hands went up.

Then I asked, “How many of you can tell me three facts about your model organism’s natural habitat?” Not a single one of them volunteered.

The study of biology has shifted hugely away from naturalist knowledge and toward genetics and statistical knowledge. Within biology, students are learning more about molecular interactions than they are about ecology. It is still possible to learn about macroscale natural systems, of course, but the focus in introductory courses has shifted toward covering DNA, proteins, and cells, and away from systematics. More and more organismal biology content is focusing on humans and model organisms, of which Drosophila is just one.

Biology has grown enormously in popularity as a major, and careers in life sciences are growing markedly. Few of those careers are in evolution or ecology; most of them are in health sciences, agriculture, and natural resources. Insects are pretty important to the latter two, and remain important for health sciences also. So reducing students’ exposure to the breadth of insect life is not a good idea.

I would advocate for greater coverage of insects in anthropology textbooks also. Insects are hugely important to the human diet, both today and in the past. Not only insects themselves but their products, especially honey, have been essential to hunting and gathering populations, and remain important in Western food systems. Insects and insect products are also very important to living non-human primates.

Most human evolution textbooks and courses spend a huge amount of time and space on hunting large mammals. We’ve known for a long time that they have underemphasized plant foods relative to the importance of plants to ancient diets. Insects have been off the menu for these courses, and that’s wrong.

Lately I’ve been reading Julie Lesnik’s new book, Edible Insects and Human Evolution. The book does a great job of bringing light to this underappreciated part of human diet, and how anthropologists are studying it. I’ll be doing a review of the book when I have some time.

Besides their importance to the diet, insects are essential aspects of human ecology, especially notable in their impact on pathogen transmission–not only malaria and yellow fever, but Chagas’ disease, trypanosomiasis, plague, and countless others.

Just last week, we learned that plague struck European populations unexpectedly earlier than previously thought, implying a very different ecology for early Neolithic village life. More and more we are seeing stories of this kind, and they mean that our knowledge of human-insect interactions is getting much more intricate than anyone knew.