There is something deliciously ironic about a magnanimous book on termites. The insect’s infamous and all-consuming love of literature — the chunkier the better — is well known. Maybe as a result, the written word on termites has traditionally, however, been dominated by sound advice on how to snuff them out.
Termites are the unloved freaks of the social insect world. Bees are praised for their pollination skills and ants are lauded for their industry. Termites, on the other hand, are an affront to human civilization, munching their way through everything we hold dear: our libraries, our homes, even our cash — in 2011 an errant gang of termites burrowed into an Indian bank and ate $220,000 in bank notes.But, as Lisa Margonelli’s mesmerizing book makes clear, we have got termites all wrong. For a start these “white ants” aren’t ants at all but cockroaches that evolution has shrunk, blinded and turned surprisingly social (all of which does little for their public relations). An “inconvenient insect,” the termite bucks basic biological rules and thumbs its nose at science as much as it does homeowners. But this mystery makes termites fascinating to Margonelli and a motley crew of multidisciplinary scientists all trying to crack the termite code and put it to good use.To Margonelli, termites aren’t just “anticapitalist anarchists,” they are “the poster bug for the 21st century — a little guide to really big ideas.” “Underbug” charts her eight-year obsession with the tiny beasts, a journey that takes her around the globe from Massachusetts to Namibia. She embeds herself with microbial biologists looking to the termite’s gut for clues about how to process wood into ethanol and solve the world’s fuel problems; roboticists trying to decipher the simple algorithm that allows the termite to build the equivalent of a skyscraper without a complex brain to guide it; and ecologists trying to harness the termite’s eco-engineering powers to regenerate land devastated by mining.ImageMargonelli turns cutting-edge science into rich narrative by plunging deep into the termite’s world — a move that requires a certain cognitive shift. “Watching termites,” she explains, “requires that you turn your internal excitement meter down to just about zero.” Margonelli, like the researchers she encounters, attempts to free herself from the shackles of human perception and enter the social insect psyche. It is a meditative state that allows her to ponder how innocent innovations can transform into destructive technologies, as well as the nature of individuality and the limits of human understanding. Early naturalists peered into hives and mounds and simply saw a reflection of their own monarchies or socialist utopian dreams. But “the great danger of seeing insects anthropomorphically is that it obscures their true bugginess,” which is the key to unlocking their bio-secrets.This isn’t just a brilliant book about bugs. For almost a decade, Margonelli scrutinized the scientists and their work with the same forensic gaze they themselves applied to the insects. The result is a rare longitudinal insight into the slippery nature of scientific progress. “It was boring, risky, lonely, cerebral. And where termites were concerned undeniably trippy.” Watching an experiment in which termites are fed fluorescent water becomes “a decadent, Day-Glo, Warholian scene: eusociality as some kind of incestuous insect rave.”In this hallucinogenic haze humans become ever more like termites to Margonelli; the termite mound a metaphor for brains, science and the complexity of existence. “Mounds became everything that mattered to me: The meaning of life. The key to the future. A parable about the interplay between the organized narratives of stories and the multilayered data and process that is science.”As we stand “on the border of our natural history and an unnatural future,” Margonelli’s masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human, as much as what it means to be termite, and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.Lucy Cooke is the author of “The Truth About Animals.”A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 17 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Social Animal