Jeanette Samyn, “Cruel Consciousness: Louis Figuier, John Ruskin, and the Value of Insects” (pp. 89–114)

This essay examines two opposing theories of consciousness and value in relation to nineteenth century entomology. In The Insect World (1868), the French popularizer of science Louis Figuier extends consciousness to aesthetically unappealing and seemingly cruel insects such as parasites by attributing to them sociality and industry. With little recourse to theological or conventional moral standards, Figuier ascribes value to parasites—on account of their consciousness, which aligns their experience with human sentience, and also because of their role as environmental mediators. In this view, he subtly paves the way for a biocentric approach to the natural world that remains controversial today. John Ruskin, meanwhile, brings up popular entomology (epitomized, he says, by Figuier’s text) as a complicated counter to his own views on labor and aesthetics in his letters to the working men and women of England, Fors Clavigera (1871–84). Questioning the contemporary “instinct” for the study of parasites—and despite recent associations of Ruskin with ecological thought—Ruskin takes pains in these letters to uphold the difference between human and nonhuman life. In his efforts to limit consciousness to the most valuable and difficult of human labors, however, he engages seriously with the implications of proto-parasitological thought for human ethics.

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