Book Review: American Pests

American Pests: The loosing war on insects from Colonial times to DDTbookcover
Author: James McWilliams
Bug Rating:cicada3.png

I spent a VERY long time reading, and then re-reading this book. I really struggled with it, because some very unflattering things were said about entomologists that I learned to revere as pioneers in the field.

Did my reaction to the book come from the exposure of the smelly clay feet of my fore-entomologists? Or was it the actual content of the book?

In the end, I concluded it was both. Some of the reason I wasn’t keen on the book initially, despite my love of things historical and entomological, was that some early entomologists are portrayed in a less than flattering light. Of course, it’s hardly news that many early entomologists weren’t perfect, so I kept reading.

Much of what is said in this book is very true, and insightful. Probably the key thing to take from it is the concept of “path dependence“–that early decisions about the ways in which agriculture was pursued in the US created a path that made certain other decisions (monoculture and increased use of pesticides, for example) inevitable.

The problem with the book is this:
If you argue that certain early decisions (monoculture, clearing the prairie, etc.) make later choices and decisions inevitable, casting entomologists as villains working for “politically corrupt” regulatory agencies or greedy corporations becomes problematic.

The author presents early individual experimentation by local farmers as the best way for sustainable insect control–yet also acknowledges that only a formal, concerted effort at the federal level can deal with many pests, and that lack of that formal control led to failures in the past.

The book seems to contradict itself in this way consistently, at the same time that it is a valuable account of the development of early entomology in the US.

The story of early insect control is one that should make anyone’s hair stand on end. Here’s just a small list of things used on food crops to control insects:

Whale oil soap * Carbolic Acid  *  Arsenic (Paris green)  *  HCL gas * Kerosene   * Lead   * Lime (London Purple)  *  Copper Sulfate * Sulfur  *  Coal oil  *  Acetoarsenic   *  Cyanide


The author does an excellent job of describing the historic spread of several devastating insect pests–Colorado potato beetle, San Jose Scale, and plum curculio, among others–and how the development of trains and other transport systems helped move pests around, exacerbating control problems.

McWilliams traces the way in which early Americans tried to control their environment at the same time they pursued economic goals that led them to undermine their ability to ever achieve that control.  They cleared land, stopped growing a mix of crops in favor of monoculture, and introduced species.  Americans fundamentally altered the dynamics of insect populations with their landscape changes–and thus, strategies of insect control also had to change.

McWilliams seems to wants to promote biocontrol and local production as alternatives for our modern chemical lifestyle, but he has trouble reconciling his romanticism of early farmers with the later hard choices they (and early entomologists) were forced into.

A few entomologists come off particularly badly in the book.  L.O. Howard practically seems like he should be twirling a villain’s moustache. He is described as having a “revisionist agenda”:   “The mosquito… revealed Howard’s ingenious ability to strategically and temporarily focus the Bureau of Entomology from agriculture to public health, a reorientation that favored chemical insecticides.” p.119

However, it was during Howard’s lifetime that the mystery of insects as disease vectors for some horrific diseases known was revealed. Changing focus to public health was therefore a fairly logical switch.   It was also during his tenure that entomologists became part of the military in WWI. The urgency of war meant that most efficient, fastest methods had to be used:  insecticides.  Cultural/biological controls took too long.

Was Howard a wanker? Sure. But that doesn’t mean he was also part of a sinister chemical plot.

In chapters covering the rise of chemical insecticides and chemical companies, McWilliams provides the most unsatisfactory coverage. For example, on p. 156:
“As objections to the use of insecticides became more strident, a well-oiled publicity machine lurched into motion to counteract the post-“poison apple scare” denunciations of chemical dependence.”

Who’s machine, exactly? It’s unclear.

The initial Food, Drug, Cosmetic act of 1938 contained a fatal flaw.  It allowed FDA to establish “safe” levels of insecticide residue, and to seize/destroy tainted crops. However, did NOT give them ability to investigate links between health and insecticides.  From this problematic beginning, it was easy for chemical companies to run amok.  However, eventually, that changed, in part thanks to the heroic work of Rachel Carson.

Unfortunately, the later sections of this book have a hurried quality that isn’t the same as the earlier chapters. It’s marked by secondary sources, unlike some of the lovely materials from Colonial farmers that are quoted extensively.

In his epilogue chapter, McWilliams makes this startling observation:
“the expense of winning approval from regulatory agencies (no matter how politically corrupt) are generally welcome developments in the insect wars.”   p. 221.

Um. Corrupt?

That’s a hugely sweeping statement. And while I will certainly not deny that the Bush Administration tampered mightily with science, the vast majority of federal entomologists and other scientists would not consider themselves corrupt!

Lastly, further undermining his credibility, McWilliams repeats the false information that early mosquito expert Dyar named an insect corpulentis after Smith, an early mosquito bio-control person, and that Smith named his next species dyaria. (p. 127). That is a false story, which I have covered here. It also points to the problem of using secondary sources, which I would not expect from a historian.

So, in summary:  Very interesting work on farming and entomology pre-1920s; after that, unsatisfactory,  incompletely sourced, and not internally consistent.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: American Pests

  1. Bug Girl, I know almost nothing about insects that I haven’t learned from your blog, but I know what you are talking about with badly sourced writing. Authors will just throw in these “of course everyone knows…” lines that they don’t source. My wife and I have been searching for a parenting book for years now which is (1.) Written by a someone who’s training is applicable. (2.) Peer reviewed. (3.) includes a bibliography (4.) Uses real behavior data (5.) from double blind studies.

    Instead we get facts the author could have wikipedia-ed, anecdotes, and the sort of bogus “O, by the way, there is a totally unprovable conspiracy that I am not going to source, just mention.” stuff your Pest author uses. For convenience, someone should start a list of books on all subjects that are scientifically rigorous, but written for laymen. Sort of anti Index Librorum Prohibitorum for skeptics.

  2. Hi! Very nice blog and useful review – thanks!!

    “The story of early insect control is one that should make anyone’s hair stand on end. Here’s just a small list of things used on food crops to control insects:

    Whale oil soap * Carbolic Acid * Arsenic (Paris green) * HCL gas * Kerosene * Lead * Lime (London Purple) * Copper Sulfate * Sulfur * Coal oil * Acetoarsenic * Cyanide


    One aspect of organic farming that isn’t widely appreciated is that the old time methods of pest control are allowed because they aren’t synthetics. Outside of maybe the kerosene and coal oil, all those on the list you mentioned are “natural”. Copper sulfate, lime and sulfur are currently allowed to control insects and plant diseases under the USDA organic standards.

    I know that these standards are the product of careful work in balancing many economic and society concerns, and I’m certainly not bashing organic farming methods. I just think most people would be surprised to know their organic food *does* have pesticides on it and just because they are “natural” doesn’t mean they are “safe”. Maybe people really would prefer to coat entire fields with sulfur over the course of a season than to spot apply a one-time targeted synthetic or, god forbid, insert a Bt gene into a plant. I’m just not sure they can find the information inside the rhetoric to make an informed choice.

    I’m an insect evolutionary ecologist, and of course I understand that large scale monocultures drenched in a synthetic pesticide is a bad thing. But in the process of finding alternatives are many interesting examples of how science gets tangled up with ecomonic, social and ethical considerations and we end up with nothing being very clear.

    USDA organic standards are here:

  3. I agree with you completely Mercy. Rotenone is quite toxic, yet is allowed on crops because it is “natural.”

    It’s much more complex than can be conveyed in a sound bite.

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