Friday, March 20, 2009

An ingenious species?

Six-Legged Soldiers: using insects as weapons of war highlights the twisted ingenuity of one of the most pervasive species on the planet. No, not the bugs - the humans. Author Jeffrey A. Lockwood tracks the various ways that humans have commandeered in their millennia-old fight amongst themselves. From the plagues called down upon the Pharaoh by Moses to an assassination attempt on President Lincoln using the clothes of yellow fever victims (the Confederate doctor who sent them didn't understand how the disease was did him no harm in the eyes of his fellow Kentuckians, who elected him Governor after the war), man has used the natural habits of insects to spread devastation. Lockwood tells a fascinating story that interweaves scientific discovery with military tactics, sometimes with truly gruesome results. There is an extended chapter on Japan's Unit 731, which conducted brutal experiments on Chinese civilians and POWs during World War II in an attempt to develop biological weapons with insect vectors. He also details accusations of American use of insect-borne diseases during the Korean War. Beehive booby-traps, insect cyborgs and crop-devastating swarms of insects are some of the many ways that humans have used arthropods for their own ends. And who knows what the future will bring - what microscopic foe will be used to decimate a country or wipe out an invading army? This isn't a very cheery book, but it is certainly an instructive one.

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