Butterfly Effect

Former Falmouth resident Edward D. Melillo has written “The Butterfly Effect: How Insects Made the Modern World.”

If you want a good read that will broaden your horizons in a refreshing way and if you really don’t want to be indoors alone reading books like “Rage,” “Disloyal” or “Fear,” I highly recommend Edward D. Melillo’s “The Butterfly Effect: How Insects Made the Modern World.”

Professor Melillo, who grew up in Falmouth but is now an environmental historian at Amherst College, first became fascinated by insects when, as a young boy at the Children’s School of Science in Woods Hole, he watched a monarch butterfly feed on a slice of watermelon. He has pursued an interest in Latin American history while deepening his love and knowledge of the natural world. In “The Butterfly Effect,” he combines history and entomology in his study of three insect products that, for centuries, had strong cultural and economic importance: shellac, silk and cochineal (the most beautiful of all red dyes).

In the pages of the book we meet Maria Merian, a Dutch woman and the first real entomologist, who collected thousands of insects in the jungles of Dutch Surinam in the early 1700s. Hers is one of the book’s many fascinating stories.

The author notes, in his concluding chapters, how in the “Synthetic Age” that followed World War II, the manmade substitutes (for e.g., nylon and FD&C Red No. 32) for these natural substances had many disadvantages and, in some cases, severe toxicity. The chapter “A Six-Legged Menu” points out that entomophagy (the eating of insects) has been common in most cultures and suggests that it might become accepted in our own: Cricket flour is now an easily attainable high-protein foodstuff. He also looks again at science in Woods Hole, in his discussion of how Rachel Carson, in her famous study “Silent Spring,” alerted us to the disastrous consequences of man’s casual use of chemicals to shape the natural world to man’s convenience.

Professor Melillo’s fascination with his subject, his precise, subtle use of language, and his skill at making surprising but valid thought-provoking connections drew me quickly though the lively pages of this book.

Ms. Hobbie is a retired history and English teacher.

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