Brains, bugs, ecology, & entomology from Herbert

Frank Herbert gave us The Green Brain in 1966, right on the heels of the publication of Dune, and the two books are close in more than just chronology. This novel is another expression of Herbert’s deep interest in ecology, which was such a major part of the foundation of Dune. What we have here is a look at imminent ecological disaster due to human shortsightedness.

In Dune Herbert wrote:

“The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realize about an ecosystem,” Kynes said, “is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams the flow, order collapses. The untrained miss the collapse until too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.

That quote could have been custom-designed for The Green Brain, since the book is all about the ecologically illiterate and how they don’t understand the consequences of their actions. The niche in the system that humanity fiddles around with in this novel is a hell of a big one: the planet’s insect population. Most of the world’s governments decide that, with an ever-growing human population, insects can no longer be tolerated, due to their massive destruction of crops and their role as a disease vector. So a great crusade is initiated to eradicate them from the planet — not just certain species, but all of them (with the exception of bees, which will be engineered to take over certain insect functions). This war is waged with an array of modern weapons and equipment, from various poisons to sonic devices. As land is cleared it becomes part of the Green zone, while the insects are continually pushed back into ever-shrinking Red zones ringed by barriers they cannot pass. Much of the planet has been cleared over a number of years, and the largest remaining Red zone is in the jungles of Brazil. The book is built around several characters involved in the Brazilian campaign.

But like other surprises of nature such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria, insects adapt and evolve in response to this survival threat. And the results of that evolution are astounding: a sophisticated mimicry ability, resistance to many poisons, the development of their own chemical warfare substances, and….. intelligence! The title of the book is more than simply metaphorical; there actually is a big green brain sitting in the jungle. And it realizes, unlike the humans, that the entire world ecosystem is threatened, that all the creatures of the world exist together in a vast complex web of relationships, and one can’t just start cutting the strands. And if the humans don’t understand this, well then they’ll simply have to be taught a lesson!

As events turn sour for the book’s protagonists, at least one of them begins to get the picture:

Joao pulled a sprayman’s emblem from his breast pocket, fingered it. “I believed it…. then. We could shape mutated bees to fill every gap in the insect ecology. It was a…. Great Crusade. This I believed. Like the people of China, I said: ‘Only the useful shall live!’ And I meant it. But that was quite a few years ago, father. I’ve come to realize since then that we don’t have complete understanding of what’s useful.”

There’s nothing much about this book that’s realistic: the idea that you can keep certain areas completely insect-free is silly; the incredible speed of insect evolution is hard to swallow; and the biologists of the world would never sign off on such a project, knowing how disastrous it would be. But surely Herbert never meant this to be a scientifically rigorous scenario. It’s one of those books that teaches a lesson in stark terms; it takes a concept, a present-day trend or issue, and pushes it to the farthest extreme possible in order to make a point. And I think it succeeds fairly well at that goal, even if it was a bit weak in terms of characterization and plot.

Worth reading? Sure.

2 responses to “Brains, bugs, ecology, & entomology from Herbert

  1. Been meaning to tell you, Bill, that you’ve been doing some great reviews over here! keep it up!

  2. Why thank you, sir! Keep it up I shall!

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