How to Cultivate Disgust

The other connection to death develops ironically from the profligacy of insects. In “senseless, formless surging” numbers, grasshoppers within a ravine represent the utter devaluation of life. Forced to confront our own triviality, we are appalled by the meaningless life and thoughtless death within the swarm. And so Miller contends that: “What disgusts, startlingly, is the capacity for life … Images of decay imperceptibly slide into images of fertility.” From here, it is a small step to the next species of disgust.

Sex: Insects as Fornicators and Exhibitionists

An abundance of life implies a corresponding profusion of copulation. The orgiastic reproduction of insects has long off ended human sensibilities: “Every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is an abomination” (Leviticus 11:41). Kolnai described the disgust we feel toward vermin in terms of the “formless effervescence of life, of interminable directionless sprouting and breeding.” He maintained that repugnance is elicited “by the sight of swelling breasts, by swarming broods of some species of animal, fish spawn, perhaps even by rank, overgrown vegetation.” Otto Weininger, another psychologist-philosopher in the early twentieth century, starkly claimed: “All fecundity is simply disgusting.”

The March fly, Plecia nearctica, is commonly seen in enormous numbers along the Gulf Coast in spring and fall. The common name of love bug refers to the fact that these insects are often seen in copula, even while flying, thereby creating the impression of an insectan orgy. (Wikimedia Commons)

In an affront to puritanical sensibilities, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and butterflies are seen in copula throughout the summer. In spring and fall across the southern United States, March flies (aka love bugs, honeymoon flies, and double-headed bugs) unashamedly mate on the wing. Appropriately enough, these six-legged exhibitionists spend their larval lives in the soil, consuming decaying vegetation. Indeed, we conceptually equate sexual license with dirtiness (e.g., pornography is “filth”), and this leads us to the next form of disgust.

Hygiene: Insects as the Original Dumpster Divers

If insects live in, consume, and emerge from sewage and garbage, it is easy to understand our revulsion. Hugh Raffles’s lyric essay includes “the nightmare of long, probing antennae from the overflow hole in the bathroom sink or, worse, the rim of the toilet.” The nasty cockroach emerging from the plumbing is arguably more disgusting, but rather less common, than a germy fly crawling on our potato salad.

Our revulsion toward flies was intensified by Public Health Service programs in the early 1900s that rechristened the house fly as the “filth fly.” At about that time, Mark Twain was writing about the fly that coats itself with germs upon wading in festering sores and “then comes to the healthy man’s table and wipes these things off on the butter and discharges a bowel-load of typhoid germs and excrement on his batter cakes.” Add to this the common knowledge (vividly captured by filmmakers in the remake of The Fly) that these insects regurgitate onto solid food to initiate the digestive process, and it’s easy to understand why a fly on our meal is so gross. This takes us to our next species of disgust.

Food: Insects as Inedible Contaminants

Although insects are important foods in many societies, eating insects violates the sensibilities of the Western palate (even entomophagous cultures are rather discriminating as to which insects are on the menu). So offensive are insects in terms of the American diet that even traces of their bodies are scrupulously regulated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers insect parts on a par with rat droppings. For example, standards for a fifty-gram aliquot of cornmeal limit the number of insects to one, the amount of “insect filth” to fifty fragments, and the quantity of rodent filth to two hairs or one “excreta fragment.” So it appears that a grain beetle is comparable to a rat turd in your muffin—an equivalence that surely reflects the emotion of disgust more than the rationality of science. Regulations aside, we might prefer a couple of rodent hairs over the excrement—except for our next form of disgust.

Bodily Products: Insects as Yucky Stuff

Hair, feces, urine, mucus, saliva, sweat, blood, vomit: this is the stuff of primal, visceral disgust. At least most insects aren't hairy (furry caterpillars notwithstanding), so aside from defecating, regurgitating lubber grasshoppers, insects don’t generally contaminate our world with their bodily products. However, the final species of disgust is another matter.

Bodily Violations: Insects as Invaders

Last summer, I was sitting with my son while he was being prepped for surgery to reassemble his shattered collarbone—a rather grisly bodily violation, in my queasy estimation. Out in the hall, I heard a brief ruckus and my son’s nurse say, “Oh thank you! I couldn't do that. It just turns my stomach.” I peeked around the corner and saw that a medical technician had squashed a cricket.

Insects in hospitals, metal screws in bones—transgressions of boundaries. Clinical psychologist Susan Miller argues that the greater the potential for something to enter us, the greater the disgust:

Small, primitive life-forms close at hand are especially likely to disgust us. I believe this is because they seem too likely to enter us or at least to latch on … they seem hungry for an affiliation with something more substantial. If they are structurally designed to cling or ooze, the problem worsens.

Lice infesting pubic hair and worms squirming from an anus are paradigm cases of creatures violating our boundaries—of insinuating, transgressing, trespassing. Our essential "self" is compromised when our biological or psychic skin is breached. We might also feel revolted when we are the violators, as when we penetrate an amorphous, protean mass of grasshoppers.


Having considered these species of disgust, we might wonder whether insects would fare as well (or badly, depending on one’s perspective) with other taxonomies. Does Rozin have it in for these creatures—or is there something about them that any cataloging would reveal? Let’s conclude with a whirlwind tour through the paired terms that William Miller uses to classify disgust (which he associates with the second descriptor in each pair): inorganic/organic, plant/animal, human/animal, us/them, me/you, outside of me/inside of me, dry/wet, fluid/viscid, firm/squishy, nonadhering/sticky, still/wiggly, uncurdled/curdled, life/death-decay, health/disease, beauty/ugliness, up/down, right/left, cold-hot/clammy-lukewarm, tight/loose, moderation/ surfeit, one/many. We might quibble about just how many of the latter terms pertain to insects, but it seems reasonable to describe many of “them” as organic, squishy, sticky, wiggly, ugly, animals associated with surfeit, death, decay, and disease.

So we see that disgust arises from a complicated set of sensory experiences and cognitive associations. However, not only the triggers of disgust but the feeling itself is, well, sloppy. Like a sticky, mucous substance, disgust is difficult to separate from other emotions. However, coming to understand the entanglements is vital to understanding the infested mind.


This post is adapted from Jeffrey Lockwood's The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects.

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Jeffrey Lockwood is a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming. He is the author of Six-Legged Soldiers.

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