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UW Entomology Professor’s Book about Rise of Insects Creates Buzz

October 17, 2014
cover of bug book with a close up of a bug's head
The cover of UW Professor Scott Shaw’s new book, “Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects.”

“Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects” by Scott Shaw of the University of Wyoming has drawn glowing comments from national and international reviewers, but bugs may be his final critics.

Shaw, a professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, jokes that editions of his new (and first) book just might end up in the guts of some insects and the digital versions devoured by computer bugs.

If that happens?

“Dark justice,” says Shaw, smiling.

More about those critics later.

Shaw tells the story of evolution of the dominant insect species and their shaping of life on Earth, written with rich, descriptive images (you’ll walk with a contemplative Shaw in his prologue, sloshing his way along a rainforest trail oozing with slippery mud), has drawn glowing reviews from the Times Higher Education Review and New Scientist, inspired a cartoon in The New Yorker, and is on Google Books, Amazon, iTunes, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.

He was invited and wrote an opinion piece, “Bug Love,” published Aug. 23 in The New York Times.

The resulting buzz seems to have little effect on Shaw, who joined UW as an assistant professor 25 years ago in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

He had sketched out the book 10 years ago and was 80 percent complete within the first two years. Then, work and writer’s block intervened. Chapters were later sent to experts and friends for review before he approached University of Chicago Press.

Once he did begin working with a publisher, there were changes.

“It’s a major transformation from the original concept,” says Shaw. “Some of the chapters were cut out entirely.”

Shaw writes chronologically, time-traveling with readers back to about a half-billion years ago when the ancestors of insects were paddling and swimming about in the oceans, and then to the explosion of present-day diversity. The 10,000 years or so of human civilization is miniscule compared to time insects dominated the planet.

Insects are the feature presentation in life’s evolution; mammals take backstage.

He mixes creative writing style with solid scientific information -- a result of teaching courses to broad audiences, such as instructing honors classes and accompanying students to Ecuador in special project courses. The chronological format sprang from repeated questions from students. During lectures about insects and evolution, students -- whether in the hard sciences or not -- seemed to always want to know more about what happened with insects “before.”

What happened to Shaw before is that the “The Cat in the Hat” and the 1960s science rush conspired to eventually land him in entomology and scientific research.

In that reader primer, Sally and her brother (unnamed) are stuck inside their house on a rainy day while their mother is away. The Cat enters and wreaks havoc and lets loose Thing One and Thing Two. Sally’s brother quickly uses a net to catch Things One and Two, when the siblings discover their mother is about to come home. Shaw says the adventure led him to want his own net at an early age.

He has been netting insects since he was 4 years old, but that would remain a hobby for a while. The space rush of the 1960s had him dreaming of becoming an astronaut. He claimed astrophysics as an initial major as an undergraduate, but that quickly changed. He even dabbled in poetry until deciding on entomology for his life’s work.

Shaw says the book is an attempt to generate an interest in insects and their importance to nature, but also to pass along ideas to a new generation of scientists who he hopes “will do a better job of taking care of the planet than we have done.”

About those insect critics. Bedbugs -- among other species -- have been known to hide in the spines of books to catch a ride or for room and board, and insects would eat the organic glue once used to bind books. The first computer bug was a moth that flew into the Harvard University Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator in 1947. It was debugged.

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