Maligned – A cockroach by any other name…

– “All I’m offering is the truth, nothing more.

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe, whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” –

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You live in a construct. It is a world of comfort. It is a world organized, air conditioned, temperature regulated, and clean. It is a world painstakingly built. And in your isolation, you have fostered an idea, an expectation, an unassailable notion; You are apart from nature. Above it. Beyond the immutable laws governing the things which creep and crawl and slither on their bellies, and which you call lower organisms. You believe in evolution, you also believe that Homo Sapiens is its pinnacle, the most highly evolved organism, and that through our own collective ingenuity we have moulded, shaped and controlled nature, and consequently mastered our own fates. You look to the stars because the world under your feet is known. And…and you pause in your thoughts as you grab a can of RAID, head over to the corner and deal with a persistent, scuttling problem.

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This sense of superiority has as its scaffold, very real, and extraordinary successes. We have flown to the moon, and live in the clouds, in towers built of engineering genius. We have circumnavigated the globe in under 48hrs and can instantaneously communicate with someone on the other side of the world. However, along with the brick and mortar of our achievements, is a cheap plaster of ego. A fault in our concrete foundation. It is a lie we have told ourselves. One which has worked its way into the fabric of our identity. We are superior. Better. More deserving. It is a dangerous line of thought. When applied to our fellow man, it is a cultivation of the worst aspects of humanity, masquerading as betterment and progress and responsible for some of the most heinous acts in human history. And when applied to the natural world? To the trees which supply the very scaffold to our towers, and the animals and rivers our sustenance – these have become our inalienable right, our resources. It is a lie. It is grasping at meaning in an infinitely complex universe, on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old, and which we are but recent arrivals (at a mere 2.8 million years old, according to the oldest fossil records, an Australopithecine named Lucy), and must strive to distinguish ourselves.

This preamble might seem largely academic. These are ideas and nothing more. They do not encompass my thoughts and feelings and actions. I am well-informed, university educated, a naturalist, etc. And this might be true…individually. But you are not just an individual, you are a member of a society. And this is group think. It is the influence of ones peers, cohorts, and fellow human beings. It reaches beyond the pale of reason, and tugs at dormant and suppressed evolutionary drives, things that we do not even know about ourselves, brought to light. Social experiments have shown that one’s actions as an individual are not always the same as those taken when part of a group. The best we can do is inform ourselves, remain open-minded, and challenge and re-evaluate our prejudices.

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So how does this blog fit in? Objectivity is the luxury of a balanced playing field in which one can access, examine and process relatively unfiltered, raw information. However, the lens through which we view the cockroach does not capture an unbiased image. Rather, it is filtered through a complex emotional landscape of personal experience, public opinion, social and cultural prejudices, and a long-standing historical grudge, dating back thousands of years which has etched a ‘truth’ into our collective consciousness – Cockroaches are filthy, vectors for disease and must be eliminated. Therefore, this account is the reactionary swing of the pendulum. It isn’t an unfettered, sycophantic account of flattery, nor is it in the vein of the mainstream, which espouses revulsion and confirms and cements people’s biases and intolerance. It is an account of diversity, and a homage to the complex suite of physiological, and behavioural adaptations accrued over an incredible 320 million year evolutionary journey by one of the oldest and most successful organisms on the planet.

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While I, as a biologist and explorer have the luxury of travelling to far flung destinations and viewing nature free from human interference, many people don’t. So, we might start our exploration as many do, a Google search. The internet, repository of all human knowledge, surely therein must lie a well-balanced, fair evaluation of the blattodea? Ermmmm…Well, the first 100 posts at a glance will give you a rough indication of the upstream public relations battle the cockroach faces. Despite a handful of questionably neutral sites (the scientist in me cringes at classifying the “peer-reviewed” Wikipedia in this category), the vast majority are either pest control sites, or blogs and articles disseminating unflattering factoids perpetuating disgust, and fear (When cockroaches inherit the earth”, “How a cockroach can live a week without it’s head”, etc…). Then, on the other end of the spectrum, the vocal minority, the cockroach fetishists which, through their over-the-top romanticization (and videos, which even I find difficult to watch), arguably do even more to damage the already beleaguered reputation of these insects.

[In a curious role reversal, I find it ironic that to the wildlife photographer, it is often these very pest control companies that are the nuisance, infringing on copyrights with wanton disregard to the original owner, dodging DMCA takedown notices, and popping up elsewhere to feed off other people’s hard work. And what’s worse is that these photos are often mislabeled, go contrary to the author’s original intent, and further spread disinformation related to their own agenda. You could say they put the cock, in cockroach.]

Anyways, buried somewhere in the 14,100,000 search results there are undoubtedly a handful of sites which seek to dispel myth and offer a fair, balanced, fact-based, informative view of this maligned order, without resorting to emotional manipulation, pejorative language, and confirmation bias. Great, so I’ll just read some of those to form my opinion, you can stop blogging now. However, things are rarely so simple. Search results are based on algorithms which use a variety of factors to determine the relevancy of the page being sought. One important factor is page rank. This is a rating given to a page based on the number of other pages which link to it. So Rihanna’s most recently written fluff piece on her shower encounter with a cockroach (You see, you have probably already opened a new tab and a searching ‘Rihanna – cockroach -shower’ My God, can you provide a link?! Calm down, it was just an example! The cockroach is fine, probably Rihanna too…) or more realistically, a pest management site’s 110% extermination guarantee, is going to get more hits and be higher on a search engine’s results page than any articulate, well-composed, and thought-provoking analysis (My, my ears are burning!). So even if your intent is to find an ‘objective’ account this can be a challenge, and a slog through digital space.

I can feel exhaustion starting to set in. At this point I usually turn to the world of science, academia, a place where critical thinking and objectivity is prized. It is the accumulation of unadulterated information, clearly sourced, it’s methodology clearly outlined. It is Truth. This is the tale I have been told, which I swallowed as a university student and which now tastes bitter on the tongue, and tiresome as it rings in my ears.These are my peers, whom I feel comfortable with, and an affinity for. However, I am also aware of dogma, of our humanity encroaching on methodology, and of our limitations. Nevertheless, the scientific method is our greatest tool when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge, and so I exchange Google for PubMed, which searches a huge library of biomedical and life science journals. As the results pour in, I see a profusion of latin names, chemical formulae, parametric and non-parametric statistical analyses (which theoretically eliminate extraneous variables such that conclusions can be ascribed to their appropriate causative agents), and everything you’d expect where accuracy and precision are prized. The content is a gold mine of information. And yet, there is a disturbing echo to the Google search results. The studies are not an unbounded exploration of its subject material. They are not knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

[A brief aside. There is often an intolerance. A negatively framed question when it comes to research funding that has no apparent application. “What is the use? My tax dollars could be so much better spent, etc…” There is the standard reply I give to people, that knowledge is cumulative and connected. Studying a poison arrow frog, the biology, natural history, it might be seen as a waste today, but Epipedobatin, a batrachotoxin extracted from the skin of Epipedobates anthonyi has been shown to have non-addictive, analgesic effects 200 times more potent than morphine. You might just be thanking this little frog for helping to solve America’s prescription drug problem! But this is an explanation that still has as its justification, a very human-based motive. The need to for unhampered research is more than this. Information shapes the way we see the world. Study and knowledge of only the most immediate and obviously beneficial and human-relevant topics and subjects confirms our place at the centre of the universe. However, the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, and we must acknowledge a world beyond ourselves. Perhaps the unrestricted study of the natural world is a means of doing this.]

No, these are directed studies insisting on answers to very human problems and concerns: What compressive forces can the exoskeleton withstand (approximately 900X their own body weight) – related to the cockroaches ability to squeeze into small spaces and withstand impacts. Which pesticides are the most effective and what are their physiological effects? What is the most efficient manner in dispersing this agent? To what extent do cockroach allergens contribute to morbidity in low-income housing? Etc. While some will look at the scientific method employed and be aghast (Eg. In the first example, a “series of dynamic compressive cycle tests” was used. Let’s deconstruct that phrase. Essentially, a piston gradually applied increased pressure over time, whilst physiological, neurological, biochemical, etc. responses could be recorded through the use of implanted electrodes in the eyes, brains and bodies. Remarkably, up to 900X the insect’s body weight, and there is no damage. Above that figure, the headline doesn’t explore, but 100s of crushed subjects is a certainty.The protocol for ethical experimentation on non-human laboratory subjects is subject to stringent guidelines. However, this is mostly the domain of vertebrate subjects. Enforcement, especially for subjects like the cockroach is much less a certainty. This experimentation is a reality of science and I recognize its importance, but I do often have questions, especially when the end goal isn’t necessarily an unadulterated knowledge, but rather a handbook to enhanced extermination techniques. While all this information can be sifted through, and eventually collated into a body of information which doesn’t advocate, and has no links to human concerns, it is painstaking. But slowly, laboriously, a story emerges. And it is an incredible one!

Stay tuned for Part II – Or there’s always the blue pill…

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