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Underbug

Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology

Lisa Margonelli
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2018
312 pp.
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Lisa Margonelli’s Underbug book is definitely not about termites—at least, not as an entomologist would view them. Instead, it consists of stories of visits to labs and field sites, with reflections on questions raised by the research and researchers she encounters. Accounts of the biology of termites are scattered through chapters on how so-called “advanced” termites construct their complex mound nests, whether and how their collective behavior can be modeled and mimicked with artificial swarms of tiny robots, whether the metagenome of termite gut symbionts and their metabolic pathways might be engineered to make biofuels, and the role of termites in natural and restored ecosystems.

Margonelli sketches scientists at work and in moments of reflection, documenting their triumphs and failures. She contrasts nicely the different methods used by researchers to interrogate their subjects—for example, comparing how a team of molecular biologists tries to understand the significance of its data by playing a guessing game with the more systematic approach of a team led by a condensed matter physicist.

The book also has plenty to say about the nature of scientific inquiry and the strange ways that termites show humans in an unfamiliar perspective. To underline these points, Margonelli frequently references Eugène Marais’s The Soul of the White Ant (1925), writing, for example, “His tale of the termite mound is part close observation, part poetic riddle, and part thumbnail guide to the universe, but it’s not exactly scientific. Still, nobody since has gotten further into imagining the thoughts of the mound than Marais, making his book an invaluable document—of our minds more than theirs.”

Comparing termites with artificial intelligence and miniature bioreactors, Margonelli describes familiar worries about the future of robotics and biological engineering, all while lamenting the loss of species and ecosystems. This is a lot to pile onto the backs of tiny insects. Are termite colonies really analogous to the human mind, as one interviewee—a physiologist studying mound construction—suggests?

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Termites are not architects, writes Margonelli; their mounds are based on instinct, not a global vision.

Happily, termites stubbornly resist being reduced to mere robots or bioreactors. Far from being compulsively industrious, many appear to be slackers, to the surprise of the compulsively industrious scientists studying them. “You never get what you’re looking for in biology,” roboticist Kirstin Petersen laments in chapter 15. “We thought of every termite as the same termite…We were idiots.”

The biggest weakness of Underbug is its structure: The book’s various stories are told in roughly chronological chapters, so the narrative skips from topic to topic and place to place to such a degree that it becomes difficult to keep track of the various participants. Neither the termites nor the big issues hold the separate lines of inquiry together. That may make a point about science, but it leads to a rather confusing read. In the end, however, Margonelli has succeeded in presenting an interesting and provocative tale in which termites and people cross paths.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Environmental Studies, Stockton University, Galloway, NJ 08205, USA.