By Warwick Cairns
Why being irrational saves us from a life of Bush-Tucker Trials
Why Not Eat Insects?
Not my question, by the way, but the title of a book. It was a book first published in the 1880s by a man by the name of Vincent M Holt, and it’s not been out of print since. In fact, it’s available on Amazon in about ten different editions, priced from a reasonable £1 all the way up to around £18. So there are lots of options there, should you be stuck for a last-minute present for a loved one. A parent, perhaps, or your children, if you have them. The look of joy on their little faces would make it money well-spent, I think.
But why not? Eat insects, I mean.
Apart from the fact that it’s a vile idea. Apart from the fact that the idea of biting into a cockroach and feeling it burst between my teeth would make me retch.
Perhaps you, too.
It is said that in the Irish Potato Famine, a million people died, and another million emigrated, and it was all needless, or so I read, in an article by an insect-eating enthusiast.
The potato crop failed, you see, but there were worms in the ground, and this writer was saying that worms are high in protein and could have been cleaned and eaten like spaghetti, or else dried and ground into flour. I know they’re not insects, worms – and nor are spiders, neither – but you get my drift. Bugs, perhaps, you might call them.
And I know in some foreign countries the people can’t get enough of them: deep-fried tarantula, giant ants in chocolate, bamboo skewers of grasshoppers in batter just waiting to be crunched. Fat Wichetty grubs, eaten alive.
But over here we don’t go in for that sort of thing.
But imagine it for a moment.
Imagine for a moment that on your plate, this evening, instead of your usual sausage and mash or whatever you eat, there is a heap of creepy-crawly things, with multiple spindly legs and antennae and eyes on sticks, and fat little bodies covered with jointed exoskeletons.
What would you do next? Rip off the heads and legs and shove the rest in your mouth, savouring the flavour on your tongue as you bite into the bodies? Or gag at the idea?
And here’s the interesting thing – because your reaction depends, to a large extent, on what you call the creatures on your plate.
Call them insects and most Westerners would throw up to have them in their mouth. But take the same sort of creatures and call them prawns or shrimps, and – well, M&S sell them by the lorry load.
And it’s not just the little ones that people eat but great big things, up to and including lobsters. Compared to which the biggest, most shudder-inducing land-dwelling insect – the May-bug, say – is as nothing.
Yet for me – and, I imagine, for you – ‘why not eat insects?’ is still the wrong question, or still the question for which the only sensible answer is ‘Because it’s horrible, you fool, and disgusting. Because the thought of it makes me feel sick.’
There are those who think this a bad thing.
There are those who think we ought, as a rule, to be less driven by our emotions, by urges and taboos; and that we ought to be more rational and logically-consistent. The world, they say, would be a better place, and we would all be better people, if only we were.
There are those who write earnest books with titles like Why Not Eat Insects and those who devise new ways of living in which what we think of as human nature is rewritten. Instead of the messy old compromises and inconsistencies we have now, we’d live better lives according to new principles.
There was a time when the world was going to be made new by the sweeping away of the ancient regime, and that mankind would enter a new age of liberté, égalité and fraternité. There was a time when selfishness and inequality were going to be abolished, and people were all going to work together for the common good, organising themselves into committees called soviets. There are those today who think that applying the right rules will make national character vanish away, and that the inhabitants of Southern Europe, for example, will start thinking and behaving with the same financial prudence as the Germans.
And there was once a very clever man, a professor by the name of B. F. Skinner, who was going to remodel humanity according to science. In 1948 he published a book called Walden Two, a utopian volume which described the wonderful life lived by the inhabitants of the ultimate ‘planned community’, a perfect town of a thousand happy, productive and creative people governed by a handful of properly qualified managers and planners, acting on the impartial advice of a small number of scientists.
It was a place in which people no longer ate meals at home with their families but dined, instead, in communal canteens, not least because the ratio of volume to surface area of a large cooking-pot is more energy-efficient than that of a smaller one. Clothes no longer denoted status, since status, like poverty and violence, no longer existed – although the people did dress attractively in items carefully and strategically chosen to be beyond the fast-changing vagaries of fashion, which is a bad thing because it ‘makes perfectly good clothes worthless’ long before they are worn out. And women in this ideal community most certainly did not fill up their wardrobes with party-dresses, since these things were quite clearly impractical.
The world, Skinner suggested, could be this way, and people could be this way, with just a little effort from all of us and just a little expert guidance from the likes of him. We could all be this way.
For some reason, though, none of these perfect worlds seems to have worked out quite as their architects planned.
For some reason we human beings remain wedded to our urges, our inconsistencies, our foibles and our irrationalities.
For some reason we kick against embracing full rationality.
Why that should be I don’t quite know.
But at least it means we don’t have to eat insects.