For Love of Insects. Thomas Eisner. Harvard University Press, Belknap. Cambridge, MA, 2005. 448 pp., illus. $19.95 (ISBN 0674018273 paper).
As Thomas Eisner writes in the prologue, For Love of Insects is “a retrospective of a lifetime of exploration of a group of animals that truly can be said to have conquered the planet.” But this is not just anyone's lifetime of research. Eisner is a world authority on animal behavior, ecology, and evolution, as well as one of the pioneers of chemical ecology, the discipline dealing with the chemical interactions of organisms. His work has spanned more than five decades, and he has published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles. Eisner is the recipient of many, many awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Eisner is also an avid conservationist, as well as an artist. He repeatedly speaks out for endangered species and on behalf of the Endangered Species Act, and he played a key role in efforts to preserve wilderness areas in Florida and Texas. A well-known nature photographer, Eisner has helped make award-winning film documentaries. He is an accomplished pianist—he even installed a piano in his laboratory at Cornell University—and an occasional conductor.
Tom Eisner has always been gifted at taking complex concepts and making them not only understandable but also entertaining. So when he publishes a retrospective of his work, it is reasonable to expect a good read; with For Love of Insects, he delivers.
When I first picked up For Love of Insects, I assumed it would focus primarily on chemical ecology (Eisner's specialty) and insects. Although the book does include explorations into chemical ecology, it is so much more, drawing deeply on the author's enthusiasm for art and history, as well as other aspects of his scientific work.
Using a series of case studies that provide a personal account of Eisner's findings over the years, For Love of Insects is part biography, part travelogue, and part scientific journal, with history and humor thrown in for good measure. Each case study lays out an entire story, from initial concept or discovery to the way in which Eisner and his colleagues provided scientific proof of their findings.
This new paperback edition maintains the well-captioned and stunning photographs that illustrated the text of the hardcover. Not only is the book well written, it is also engaging and fun. In one section Eisner uses modern art and even an illustration from a story about Babar the Elephant, wherein Babar paints eyes on the other elephants' behinds to scare off their rhino enemies, to illustrate how eyespots on Lepidoptera confound their enemies.
For Love of Insects contains enough depth and description to engage even the most dedicated entomologist, yet because the material is presented in Eisner's engaging style, the reader never gets lost in a maze of scientific jargon. My background is not in chemical ecology, and I wondered if I would have to think back some years to my graduate teaching assistantship in chemistry to grasp the content of the book. But I need not have worried. As Eisner points out, most species on the planet use chemical means to orient, communicate, and defend themselves, and I was fascinated to read about ants that use formic acid to ward off foes and bombardier beetles that eject defensive sprays as hot as boiling water. Eisner also covers some of the ingenious ways in which insects have evolved to camouflage or confuse their predators, from caterpillars disguising themselves as flowers by fastening petals to their bodies to beetles that use coloration to mimic predatory wasps.
For Love of Insects would add significantly to anyone's understanding of chemical ecology and entomology, including entomologists and chemical ecologists. However, the wealth of knowledge within this book makes it valuable beyond these subjects. I believe this book—perhaps one of the best all-around natural history books I've ever read—is a must for any student studying the natural sciences. The scientific method that Eisner describes in such detail shows how biology is a process of trial and error, while his accounts of deriving inspiration not from staying in the classroom or the library but from observing events outdoors demonstrate that the best laboratory researchers are curious investigators who find questions in all natural phenomena. For those who are especially interested, Eisner even suggests topics that beg for further research.
Another stated goal of the book is to change the attitude of entomophobes. This book is not so much about insects as it is about a long journey through the natural world, guided by an inquisitive mind and at times imbued with an almost childlike sense of delight at the astounding things to be discovered. I think it would be hard for any reader to come away from this book without sharing in the author's sense of wonder at the amazing ways in which insects have evolved to defend, mate, and live.
With fewer and fewer people engaged in the study of biology and natural history, this book could serve to explain to nonscientists why insects deserve respect. Now if we could just make it required reading in all business courses….