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2 february 2011

I'm not fonder of cockroaches after reading Marion Copeland's Cockroach, but I do have more respect for them.

Cockroaches, according to Copeland, do not carry disease, and people typically aren't allergic to the little guys per se. They don't bite or sting. They're quite edible, even nutritious – and we're probably eating our share of them anyway, thanks to a food-processing industry that has to tolerate a certain percentage of insect in its products. They are fairly long-lived for their size, bear few young, and care for those young intensely – relative to other invertebrates, of course; but still, they are not the faceless disposable hordes you see in monster movies. Some people have even befriended individual cockroaches.

And literature has a few personable cockroaches, notably Kafka's Gregor Samsa and Don Marquis's archy, who figure passim in Copeland's book. The cockroach is emblematic of life's little guy. Or gal: Copeland sees the cockroach as a potent symbol for ecofeminism. Cockroaches are longsuffering, adaptable, low-impact recyclers. They are the sworn enemies of ecological poisoning, and they are notoriously the most likely species to survive into a posthuman Eden where the planet will heal from the depredations of men.

No, I'm still going to swat the hell out of the next one I see in the kitchen. But there's an odd beauty in the many cockroaches pictured in the splendid illustrations in Copeland's book. They are supremely functional creatures with sleek, no-nonsense designs. A cockroach scurrying at full speed is running, inch for inch, as fast as a human at 90 MPH (37), but easily avoids obstacles, thanks to senses that would qualify as paranormal if we possessed them.

The vast majority of world cockroaches aren't symbiotic with humans; they prefer to spend their lifecycles quietly scavenging forest debris. But the few "pest" species that have decided to scavenge in our homes get all the press.

Honestly, I think it's the head shields that get us. If cockroaches had cute little visible faces instead of those Darth-Vaderish cowls, we'd personify them much more easily. But they look like storm troopers instead of butterflies (which are equally arthropodic and universally beloved). Cockroaches can be pretty, but they're pretty like a tank, not pretty like a VW Beetle. Their helmeted appearance is another triumph of function over aesthetics, but it means that the cockroach will never really appeal – just command an arm's-length respect. And a roll of newspaper.

Copeland, Marion. Cockroach. London: Reaktion, 2003.