A merry jaunt through the past, present, and future of butterfly pop science.
In her hybrid history/science/travel text, science journalist Williams, whose previous book was a historical and scientific and cultural exploration of horses, leads readers through the body of human butterfly knowledge, driven by a guiding question: “What is it about butterflies that so easily and so universally catches the fancy of Earth’s Homo sapiens?” In the first section, the author profiles the early pioneers in butterfly breakthroughs. The second elaborates on the questions that contemporary science is currently trying to answer. The third section, urgent but not alarming, focuses on the environmental threats to the “goddess of color” and what we can do to ameliorate them. To keep the science and history accessible rather than overwhelming, Williams wisely selects key characters, transformational moments, and illustrative species. Most of the protagonists of her story are women, such as “the inestimably brave” German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) and an American mother-daughter butterfly-tagging team. Readers should keep their computer or phone handy, as the reverent descriptions of the insects’ beauty may require visual satisfaction. Williams paces a geological event like an action movie, and her animated storytelling skills, coupled with her orientation toward universal themes like the nature of beauty, will appeal to a broad audience. The author views butterflies as emblematic of the natural world as a whole. “The world’s favorite insect,” she writes, “unites us across generations and across space and across time. They are elemental. A butterfly is an entire universe, right there in the palm of your hand.” Just as efforts to rescue endangered butterfly species have restored ecosystems, the innate human fascination with butterflies becomes a unifying factor in divided times. Our awe for them, Williams suggests, can motivate us to treat each other and the planet better, and the author guides us on our way as she informs, entertains, and rallies readers to the conservationist cause.
Expect this book to awaken the dormant butterfly enthusiast within.