The award-winning journalist Lisa Margonelli, national bestselling author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank, investigates the environmental and economic impact termites inflict on human societies in this fascinating examination of one of nature’s most misunderstood insects.
Are we more like termites than we ever imagined? In Underbug, the award-winning journalist Lisa Margonelli introduces us to the enigmatic creatures that collectively outweigh human beings ten to one and consume $40 billion worth of valuable stuff annually—and yet, in Margonelli’s telling, seem weirdly familiar. Over the course of a decade-long obsession with the little bugs, Margonelli pokes around termite mounds and high-tech research facilities, closely watching biologists, roboticists, and geneticists. Her globe-trotting journey veers into uncharted territory, from evolutionary theory to Edwardian science literature to the military industrial complex. What begins as a natural history of the termite becomes a personal exploration of the unnatural future we’re building, with darker observations on power, technology, historical trauma, and the limits of human cognition.
Whether in Namibia or Cambridge, Arizona or Australia, Margonelli turns up astounding facts and raises provocative questions. Is a termite an individual or a unit of a superorganism? Can we harness the termite’s properties to change the world? If we build termite-like swarming robots, will they inevitably destroy us? Is it possible to think without having a mind? Underbug burrows into these questions and many others—unearthing disquieting answers about the world’s most underrated insect and what it means to be human.
Praise for Underbug
“This book is about termites the way the Bible is about men with beards. Yes, it takes you into the mounds and inside the bugs, but also deep into the strange labs and pulsing, eclectic minds of the roboticists, geneticists, physicists, and ecologists who try to figure them out. Perhaps best of all, it takes you deep into the brain of Lisa Margonelli, one of the finest writers and most original thinkers we have. A surprising, swirling, fantastically unpredictable, thought-provoking, funny, and (depending on your species) delicious book.”
—Mary Roach, author of Stiff
“In a unique voice that’s wry, inventive, and acrobatic, Margonelli takes us on a termite-guided exploration of subterranean tracts of nature, science, and robotics. The book is brimming with flair. Prepare to find yourself absorbed.”
—Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Other Minds
Lisa Margonelli is the author of the national bestseller Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank and writes the Small Science column for Zócalo Public Square, where she is a senior editor. From 2006 to 2012, she was a fellow at the New America Foundation. She has written for The Atlantic, Wired, Scientific American, The New York Times, and other publications. She lives in Maine.