Good for nothing

Good for nothing

In the study of grasshoppers, an entomologist discovers the value of simply being.


Introducing myself at social gatherings as an entomologist is almost sure to generate interesting conversation. Everybody has stories to share and questions to ask about their encounters with insects. I haven’t kept count, but the most common question I hear at parties takes a form such as, “I know that we shouldn’t kill them all, but really, what are they good for?” “Them” refers to the particular insect that is the topic of discussion. After a moment, most people often suggest their own answer: “I suppose birds eat them.” But somehow this doesn’t seem satisfactory, and they want me to explain the purpose of mosquitoes, miller moths, or grasshoppers.

I admire our increasing awareness that all beings are part of an interconnected whole and that when a strand of the web is broken there are often system-wide effects. All of that is true, but it suggests, however implicitly, that the purpose of this web somehow involves us humans. The problem is that nature doesn’t exist for us, ecosystems don’t care about us, animals don’t generally love us, and the universe doesn’t really need us. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, counseled that it was important to “desire every one of your actions to be right in your own judgment, and remember two things: Your actions are significant, but the circumstances in which they take place have no significance.” This paradox is compelling: Each life is of infinite value to itself and of no importance to the universe. To ask what a life, human or insect, is “good for” presumes that value lies in utility, that worth is not intrinsic.

Getting to know them

I know grasshoppers. I’ve dedicated my professional life to their study. In the last 15 years, I’ve published 60 scientific papers on grasshoppers, along with nearly a score of chapters and books, secured $2 million in research funding, and mentored 10 graduate students. I’ve delivered more than 90 presentations on grasshoppers at scientific conferences in a dozen countries, and I serve on the governing boards of two international organizations—one devoted to the scientific study of grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids; the other dedicated to the management of grasshopper and locust outbreaks. I know a whole lot about grasshoppers.

I have employed many methods for learning about grasshoppers. Only recently have I begun to consider what I might learn from them. Science provides innumerable tools for learning about life, but ultimately one must turn to other ways of knowing to discover how we might learn from it. Fortunately, one can interpret a single experience from multiple perspectives; “good science” need not preclude intuitive insight or transcendent understanding. An observation can provide information, foster knowledge, or evoke wisdom, depending on what the observer brings to the encounter. So it is that the grasshoppers have taught me, among other things, the nature and value of nothing.

When I was hired in 1986 as an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming specializing in grasshopper biology and management, I was a competent entomologist. My only first-hand encounters with these insects, however, were as a child in New Mexico. My parents built a house on the outskirts of Albuquerque and their landscaping provided the only green food that the grasshoppers saw in the summer. This afforded bountiful opportunities for catching grasshoppers, which I housed in various containers or fed to the black widow spiders that lined the wall of the backyard, but these were hardly the experiences on which to build a scientific career.

So, I began my university research by spending my first summer studying grasshoppers on the shortgrass prairie just north of Fort Collins, Colorado. The site was ideal because it supported an abundance of grasshoppers (10 to 15 per square yard), provided a wide diversity of species (30 different kinds of grasshoppers), and was convenient (only an hour from the campus at Laramie where, at an elevation of 7,200 feet, summers are too short to generate many grasshoppers on the surrounding grasslands). I would simply park at a campground along Highway 287, climb over the barbed wire fence, cross the weedy pasture to the north, clamber up a rocky slope, weave between the mountain mahogany shrubs, and emerge in a grassy field that covered a few hundred acres and contained a few million grasshoppers.

The ancient fellow who owned the land lived in a dilapidated set of buildings you could get to only via a bridge surmounted by two wooden tracks about 18 inches wide. The challenge was to line up your truck perfectly on the dirt road leading to the ravine and then, unflinching, cross the bridge in a straight line. I suspect the old man didn’t make the crossing often. In fact, except for the times that I renewed his permission to access the land, I never saw him. I’m pretty sure I had his permission, but given his lack of hearing and teeth, I was never sure that he knew what I meant or that I knew what he said.

I spent hundreds of hours from June to September sitting on the prairie with a video camera, recording grasshopper behavior. I decided to focus on just one species that year. The first rule of science is to simplify the problem; isolate that which you seek to understand. I chose Aulocara elliotti, the bigheaded grasshopper. Although this is a serious pest of the rangeland, my interest was rather more pedestrian. A. elliotti was abundant and the size of a pencil stub, so it could be identified from a discrete distance. It has, as one might infer, an abnormally large head, along with a white “X” on its back, and blue hind tibiae, or limbs.

Previous field studies of insect behavior had taught me that the greatest virtue of my summer’s work would be patience. Remaining motionless to capture the behavior of the grasshoppers in an undisturbed state became increasingly difficult as summer progressed. The chill of dew-dampened mornings gave way ever more quickly to the searing heat of midday. The grasses set seeds, which took the form of variously modified darts that worked their way into socks, creases, and bootlaces. The sweat bees showed no gratitude for their feast, delivering burning stings whenever trapped between clothing and flesh. And the muscular tension of holding the camera on my shoulder was creating a permanent crick in my neck. I took breaks periodically, but real relaxation came only when I became fully engaged in my filming, when I lost all sense of time and discomfort by total absorption in the life of grasshoppers. I didn’t analyze the 10-foot shelf of video tapes until later that fall, but even in the summer I knew full well what grasshoppers did most of the time: nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The results of the summer of 1986 became my first published paper on grasshoppers. To be honest, only by a careful selection of particularly intriguing behaviors was I able to find enough activity in the videotapes to generate scientifically interesting conclusions. I determined, for example, that this species engages in territorial behavior, or at least aggressive intolerance of other individuals. Despite my focus on the times when the grasshoppers were “doing” something, for 43 minutes out of every hour they were not doing anything. They just sat there on the ground or hung in the vegetation. I called this “resting,” presuming they were saving energy for the real demands of life. Other biologists have ascribed such immobility to thermoregulation: If they are sitting in the sun, then they are really engaged in warming themselves, while if they are hunkering in the shade, they are cooling themselves. There are some occasions when these interpretations are valid, as when they perch on top of grasses and turn perpendicular to the sun’s rays in the early morning. But I suspect that most of the time, when grasshoppers appear not to be doing anything, they aren’t clandestinely engaged in pursuing other goals—they are simply doing nothing.

From the perspectives of ecology and evolution, spending hours engaged in doing nothing is difficult to explain. After all, these grasshoppers suffer a daily mortality rate of about 2 percent, meaning that only about one-third of those that hatch in the spring will survive to reproduce as adults. Imagine how your workplace would change if one out of every 50 employees died every day. If your doctor told you that you had a 2 percent chance of dying each day, that would mean you could count on even odds of being dead by the end of the month. Under these circumstances, an organism should be desperately engaged in securing resources and assuring its biological success—eating and mating—especially when the essential ingredients are presumably in short supply.

Grasshopper economics

Ecology and evolution are grounded implicitly in the structure of human economics. These explanatory systems presume that the dynamics of life arise because essential resources are limited, thereby necessitating brutal competition. Economists seem fond of developing models that further assume that perfectly informed agents act with perfect rationality to acquire these inadequate resources. This is, of course, a silly assumption in the case of humans, who are often misinformed and profoundly irrational. But insects ought to be well informed by their finely tuned senses, and in the presumed absence of self-awareness and individual volition, grasshoppers should be largely driven by the cold, calculating logic of natural selection. Humans might invest according to their horoscopes, but insects ought to manifest behaviors that arise from simple cause-and-effect optimization of their fitness.

But grasshoppers defy the economics that use either energy or genes as the currency of life. Grasshoppers are incredibly blasé about reproducing or feeding. Sex appears to be an activity of modest interest, at best. Courtship and mating occupy a small proportion of their days; most of their encounters seem to be more antagonistic than romantic. In fact, reproductive behavior was so rare that I excluded it from my analysis and titled my paper, “Nonsexual interactions in Aulocara elliotti.” If we consider that grasshoppers often reach population densities of 30, 40, and up to 100 per square yard, then surely they ought to be competing fiercely for their share of the food. But in my summer of behavioral recording, the grasshoppers spent only about three minutes out of every hour eating, despite the impending famine. There was no tragedy of the commons, no gluttonous devouring of a dwindling larder, no headlong race for each to extract the most food from the pantry. Indeed, after 15 years of working with these insects in the field, I have encountered only three or four situations in which it seemed that they had eaten themselves into an absolute shortage (a shortage of nutritious food may occur well before a field is literally stripped of all vegetation), and in these cases they simply walked or flew less than a day’s journey to greener pastures.

What are the grasshoppers up to? If we humans were short of resources, then we would surely battle for our share. We’d scurry about attempting to vanquish competitors, hoard supplies, mate feverishly, and, well, do much of what we seem to do in the modern world. But grasshoppers aren’t humans. It is not even clear that they are operating under an economy of shortages, and if they are, there is scant evidence that they are behaving to ensure a competitive advantage. Why should they? If science aspires to objectivity, then why is it appropriate to ascribe to other beings the values that we use to explain or rationalize our actions? In a great subjective leap, we presume that competition for limited resources is the leitmotif of all living beings because this theme defines our own interactions in and with the world.

The fact is that grasshoppers spend the majority of their time doing nothing (unless you count digesting, breathing, and being incidentally warmed or cooled). Our struggle to understand their languor arises from our approaching these creatures with the same question with which we approach one another: “What do you do?” It is as if we can define all worth in terms of what someone or something does. This assumes that value is instrumentally derived—things have worth in terms of what they do for (or to) other things and ultimately in terms of what they do for us. Relationships are critically important to defining life, but they are not the sole measure of our lives.

If we were to reconstruct our scientific understanding in the context of intrinsic value, the notion that something can have worth in and of itself, then a rather different interpretation of animal behavior, ecology, and evolution emerges. If we seek to reveal the inherent worth and dignity of life, the intrinsic reality fundamental to Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysics, the inner being essential to Teilhard de Chardin’s understanding of existence, the self that was the core of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s meaning of life, then it is not surprising that a grasshopper might spend a couple of hours just sitting. I am reminded that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist priest, suggested that when people are hurrying about and shouting, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” the crisis might be more effectively addressed if a quiet voice admonished us, “Don’t do something, just sit there.” Maybe grasshoppers would make good Buddhists. They certainly defy the Protestant work ethic (a failing immortalized in the children’s tale of the “Ant and the Grasshopper”) and the cultural values that underlie scientific inquiry. Sometimes I wonder why we call ourselves “human beings,” when we spend very little time “being.” Perhaps we ought to call ourselves “human doings” and reserve the notion of “beings” for the other creatures.

The do-nothing grasshoppers have taught me that science is very effective at assessing and understanding substance and activity. In terms of the interdependent web of all existence, science excels at analyzing and controlling the strands, but has little to say about the spaces. And a web is mostly empty space. There are ancient methods for exploring the space between the strands, but these methods are generally viewed as being not just different from, but inimical to, science. But the emptiness is so essential to being that science must acknowledge its existence. Unable to manifest humility or reverence, we conquer the void by dint of language and faith. Naming is a powerful means of asserting control, and science has developed a rich assortment of terms to establish intellectual dominion over the elusive and unknowable. The mysteries that emerge between the strands are labeled as variation, noise, error, and chance.

This tactic would be more plausible if science had a test for randomness, but none exists. An appeal to randomness is a faithful prayer to the unseen. We can tell you what it isn’t (randomness is the absence of identifiable pattern, the modern version of terra incognita), but we cannot assert what it is. Chaos theory demonstrates that sometimes randomness is constrained, shaped into a cloud of realized events by a so-called “strange attractor.” The origin and nature of these forces that sculpt order from formless chance are themselves a complete mystery. But what science cannot fathom, it still manages to exploit. At every scale, creative order arises from putative disorder. In evolution, random mutation plays a pivotal role; in quantum physics, probability waves lie at the heart of existence; in cosmology, nothingness gave rise to the universe.

A resting grasshopper is akin to randomness; it manifests a behavior that fails to fit any identifiable purpose or pattern that we expect to see. It is, as far as we can tell, doing nothing and persists in this state of meaningless existence for prolonged periods of time. To code the behavior of these insects, I designated “resting” as “0.” When analyzing data, we differentiate between “missing data” and “true zero.” Missing data are just that—empty, information-free spaces because we didn’t look (or lost the data). A true zero means that we looked but didn’t see anything. This system, however, presumes that when we don’t see anything, there really is nothing there. Categorizing resting behavior as a true zero created the illusion that I knew that there was nothing other than an immobile, impassive, nonfeeding, nonmating, noncompetitive, uncommunicative organism devoid of biological meaning. What it really meant was that I didn’t know what the grasshopper was doing, or whatever it was doing, it didn’t fit any of my expectations of what a grasshopper ought to be doing. The latter interpretation is certainly suggested by some subsequent work on feeding behavior.

Munching on moonlight

Grasshopper feeding presented a bit of a problem. The amount of forage that the ecologists claimed that these insects consumed could not be reconciled with the amount of time the behaviorists had documented as devoted to feeding. This wasn’t a major biological controversy, but it was an intriguing riddle. The solution was incredibly simple, being a matter of changing expectations and assumptions about what other life forms ought to be doing. The dogmatic description of a typical grasshopper’s day involved its basking in the early morning, feeding at mid- to late morning, sheltering to avoid the midday heat, feeding in the late afternoon, and then resting throughout the night. Nobody had actually spent any real time trying to watch grasshoppers at night. After all, they were obviously active during daylight, and staggering around the prairie at 3 a.m. seemed pointless, if not masochistic. But by capturing grasshoppers and examining their crop (stomach) contents over several 24-hour periods, we discovered that on warm summer nights these insects are happily munching away. In fact, some species decidedly prefer midnight snacking, which makes good sense given the risks of exposing themselves to predators while clambering around in the grass during the day. By partitioning their mealtimes throughout the day and night, a rich diversity of grasshoppers in a community effectively manages to feed continuously. Our discovery did not shake the foundations of science, but it did demonstrate how science can become a subjective projection of our lives, wants, and needs onto other organisms.

A good colleague recently told me that he had failed to replicate my findings of nocturnal feeding. He had taken several individuals of a single species of grasshopper from the field during the day, caged them in observation tanks, offered them prefabricated wafers of compressed grass throughout the night, and observed their feeding. They didn’t eat the wafers, so he concluded that my “night feeding phenomenon” was an interesting but spurious result. I maintain that if you take an animal from its complex habitat, place it in a completely alien setting, and offer it a single, artificial food, then you probably can’t say very much about what that animal or its community of related species are doing in the intact habitat. In fact, my experience with taking grasshoppers from the field and caging them generates a fairly consistent behavior within a very short period—they die. My colleague had produced what appeared to be a true zero, but in reality it was a zero-by-design. There are two lessons here.

First, dismissing unexpected results as “spurious” is a way to evade reality. In a spectacular metaphysical feat, that which science cannot explain, ceases to exist. The life sciences are very good at induction and rather weak at deduction. We can predict the pattern or extract the generality, but we cannot explain the particular or account for the exception. For some matters this is fine, but the limit is obvious when we realize that each of our lives—and the lives of other beings—is ultimately a singular occurrence.

Second, science may be very adept at developing and applying analytical methods, but you cannot see what you do not look for. Sometimes you don’t even recognize you are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Isolating elements of complex systems for scientific study is a defensible and useful tactic, but it requires that we ignore vast numbers of relationships. This approach generates valuable information and suggests plausible mechanisms, but it does not reveal ultimate explanations or assure wisdom.

And so, in answering the polite and honest question, “What is a grasshopper good for?” the ecologist in me wants to discuss the role of this creature in nutrient cycling, and the evolutionist in me wants to explain that it is good at replicating itself. But I have come to understand that these are ends that we impose and values that emerge only by induction; the grasshopper is unaware of our goals and statistical extrapolations. We might as well as ask ourselves what our children are good for: Do we love them because they are efficient omnivores, effective competitors, successful phenotypes, genetic successors? These comprise the right answer to the wrong question. The reason we value our children is not because of what they do, but because of who they are. That’s why, as a spiritual scientist, my answer is that a grasshopper isn’t good for anything. Its presence is of no significance—an ultimate zero. Its value is in being a grasshopper, nothing more. The grasshopper just is. And that is enough.

This article appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of UU World (page 30-35) and was later included in the essay collection Grasshopper Dreaming (Skinner House Books, 2002).