Cover_The Silken Thread

Robert N. Wiedenmann & J. Ray Fisher

Oxford University Press USA


ISBN: 9780197555583

Reviewed by Philip Howse

This is a stimulating book, which should be required reading for all students of entomology and should be of great interest to the general reader. The strategy of the authors has been to select the five insects that have had the most impact on human welfare, showing how they have, in each case, changed the course of history.

Wiedenmann and Fisher are colleagues who, having made their choice

of species, have uncovered a wealth of fascinating information about the history of these five insects: the Domesticated Silkworm (Bombyx mori), the Oriental Rat Flea (Xenopsylla cheopis), the Body Louse (Pediculus humanus), the malarial mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and the Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera).

The authors make the startling point that malaria has caused, and still causes, hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and that, together with rat fleas and body lice, mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that have killed more humans than all the wars in history.

Having written well-researched chapters on each insect, they faced the problem of putting the history and impact of five species together to make a coherent framework; hence the title of the book. The result is an ambitious attempt to link the sections together in a cohesive framework that is obviously inspired by Peter Frankopan’s seminal view of world history The Silk Roads (Bloomsbury, 2015) which traces the role of trade routes in world history. For me, however, this does not quite work, and that implies that the publishers have chosen a somewhat misleading title for the book. The subtitle Five Insects and their Impact on Human History is a more apposite and honest description of the book.

My other main criticism of what is, notwithstanding, an excellent and well-written book, is that all the illustrations are in black and white. True, some of them do not lend themselves to colour, but when colour printing is no longer more costly than black and white printing (although possibly this is not so in the USA, where the book was printed) the appeal of the book to the general reader could have been enhanced by colour illustrations — especially in the first two chapters, ‘Moth spit’ and ‘The Silk Roads’.