...as Lisa Margonelli’s mesmerizing book makes clear, we have got termites all wrong ... Margonelli turns cutting-edge science into rich narrative by plunging deep into the termite’s world — a move that requires a certain cognitive shift ... This isn’t just a brilliant book about bugs. For almost a decade, Margonelli scrutinized the scientists and their work with the same forensic gaze they themselves applied to the insects. The result is a rare longitudinal insight into the slippery nature of scientific progress ... Margonelli’s masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human, as much as what it means to be termite, and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.
[An] odd book, made odder still by the fact that it’s often simultaneously engrossing and exasperating. And yes: The reader who perseveres through Underbug will also learn a thing or two about the recondite workings of termite civilization ... Ms. Margonelli takes a rather cosmic view of the termites’ endeavors ... The most fraught of the sundry fields Ms. Margonelli explores have to do with national defense and the attempts by the Pentagon to extrapolate from termite attributes to create cutting-edge weaponry ... Underbug isn’t for the casual reader. Its structure is reminiscent of a termite mound, either baroquely convoluted or profligately shambolic, depending on how it’s viewed. The book is best read as a collection of essays. And while Ms. Margonelli writes well and tries to maintain a blithe tone, the science is complex and demands at least a modicum of background knowledge on the part of the reader. But she raises weighty, worthy questions about the moral underpinnings of termite research and, indeed, of the nature of science in general.
... as Lisa Margonelli so elegantly demonstrates in Underbug, when we look at social insects, all too often we see only what we want to see ... Despite falling far short of Marais’s The Soul of the White Ant in clarity and poetry, Underbug is an extraordinary provocation. Those willing to follow its meandering arguments may find intriguing clues to humanity’s fate.