Erica McAlister with Adrian Washbourne

The Natural History Museum London


ISBN: 9780565095567

Reviewed by Peter Smithers

Metamorphosis explores the many aspects of insect biology that have inspired new technologies and ideas. In each case the book outlines the biology of a particular group of insects, then examines how this has inspired a technological innovation and charts its development. These range from the jumping mechanism in fleas, via the fruit fly Drosophila as the Swiss army knife of biological research, to the origins of forensic entomology and the rise of the Black Soldier Fly Hermetia illucens as the ultimate up-cycler of organic wastes. But all of these stories meander across the entomological landscape introducing the reader to a rich cast of colourful characters and a diverse array of fascinating biology along the way.

Metamorphosis is not just about insect biology and innovation, it is also a series of mini biographies about the people who unravel these complex biologies. Among these are the Rothschilds, to whom we are introduced as pioneers of flea biology, Charles Darwin and his fascination with the pollination of orchids, Thomas Hunt Morgan who pioneered the use of Drosophila as a model organism, Margaret Fountaine, the intrepid butterfly hunter and social rebel, plus Berta Scharrer who, with her husband, pioneered the field of neurophysiology using cockroaches but who as a woman was not allowed a salary. These life stories offer an insight into their determination, tenacity, self-belief and ultimate success.

Metamorphosis incorporates a larger dose of technical language than Erica’s previous books and this could be challenging for some lay readers, but once engaged it is a fascinating composite of insect biology, technological innovation, entomological history and an introduction to a host of fascinating entomologists. It was also good to see small doses of the McAlister irreverence slip into the narrative now and then. Metamorphosis presents insects as incredibly complex and adaptable organisms, but also as a vast untapped resource that is set to inspire many new technologies. It also portrays the entomologists who research them as rebels and pioneers, biologists who think outside the box and who strive against a sometimes unreceptive world, heroes and heroines all.Metamorphosis is entertaining, informative and inspirational. It is a book that will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the natural world.