“The language of butterflies is the language of color,” Wendy Williams writes in her new book centered on the six-legged insects. Lepidoptera have offered delight and visual pleasure for centuries because of their brilliant hues and ostentatious patterns. The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect centers on their enchanting nature as Williams explores how such tiny insects have enraptured both scientists and novices and exposed a seemingly endless human desire for beauty.
Employing simple vocabulary and succinct explanations of complex concepts, Williams’s style reflects her background in journalism. She is a master of contextualization, situating each fact about the dusty scales that cover Lepidoptera wings or the differences between a moth and butterfly — the former emerge from cocoons and the latter chrysalises — within layers of anecdotes and histories. The comprehensive text proves both Williams’ aptitude and that her project is as deep and complex as she argues. While each personal story leads to a larger point, though, some sections feel tedious and could be trimmed.
Ranging from Lepidoptera’s first days on Earth 400 million years ago to more recent land conservation efforts to bolster dwindling populations across the United States, the author considers the historical and biological evolution of the butterfly. She dives into Charles Darwin’s collaborative research and uncovers the precise watercolor paintings of famed Lepidopterist Maria Sibylla Merian, whose pieces were lauded for their vibrancy and accuracy and yet lacked the distinct luster of a live butterfly. Just like Walter Benjamin’s insistence that reproduced artworks fail to capture the distinct time and space that create its aura, paintings, illustrations, and photographs have failed throughout history to capture the full presence of the fluttering insects.
For such a historically situated text, Williams subtly threads in more recent cultural references. She compares spider wasps’ defenses to Melania Trump’s “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket and the sun’s power to the “Lord of Light,” the deity of fire in Game of Thrones. Combined with Williams’s conversational tone, these humorous additions offer a liveliness. She also, however, describes the terrifying method that moths use to penetrate the eyelids of birds to drink their tears. Mixed with tales of the underground market that sells preserved specimens for hefty sums, the scandal-laced work can evoke a crime thriller in the best ways.
With its contemporary references and (sometimes) gruesome explanations, The Language of Butterflies ultimately proves one basic point: that human superiority is a myth, especially when evolution continually engenders more complex and advanced organisms.
Innate in people, Lepidoptera, and the natural world is a similar desire for a beauty that’s expressed often through color. Similar to the 24-cycle we feel in our bodies that signals it’s time to wake and later to sleep, living beings all have a biological proclivity for the attractive, whether it be a perfectly yellow banana or the amber nectar deep in a flower. Evolutionarily speaking, while the good-looking fruits or scenery engender feelings of safety and peace, the opposite spark fear.
For butterflies, vibrant colors and multiple spots mimicking eyeballs warn potential predators that the small monarch or blue morpho is larger than it appears. But while color has an external effect, it also creates the lenses through which these minuscule insects see the world. One of the most stunning facts Williams includes explains that while humans have only three color “channels” that allow us to see blues, greens, and yellows, butterflies have evolved to utilize more than double, if not triple, the number of pigments. These hues present themselves as a sort of fractured mosaic. Humans may have clearer vision, but these tiny insects are seeing aspects of the world that we don’t have access to, a fact that should disrupt any conventional ideas we hold about our perceived exceptionalism.
Anthropocentric justifications rely on the assumption that humans are inherently superior to all other life forms. While these pose obvious issues for animal-rights groups and have been disregarded more frequently — and yet too slowly — in mainstream conversations about environmental ethics, they still dominate many political decisions, including the Trump administration’s recent emissions rollback.
This is where insight into the lives and language of butterflies provides one more argument against those who insist in maintaining anthropocentrism: If humans can’t even see the world fully, and even are failing to see beyond our limited visionary capabilities, then how can we genuinely prove our ability to understand “reality” better than other species?
Grace Ebert is a Chicago-based writer and editor. Her most recent work is with Colossal. Find more at graceebert.com.