The Slow and Tender Death of Cockroaches

In my beginning is my end.

—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”

 

I always find them alone. Laid on their backs and clawing at the ceiling, like they were still falling from a too-high place. I find them on the shelf next to the dishware. On the floor, by the rubbish bin in the corner. Between electric burners on the stove. I watch them die, and I wonder if they’re missing someone.

Roaches are everyone’s favorite enemy. We can all hate them together. Maybe the cockroach can be the new mascot for the twenty-first century, since it’s something that everyone can finally agree on.

What is it about roaches? What makes most of the human race recoil in horror and snatch a tissue to squidge them out? (Or a broom, depending on the kind of roach. There are approximately four-and-a-half thousand candidates.) Maybe it’s because they scuttle about like an oil slick on legs, gross as all hell. Or that the wretched things are sentient, way more than other bugs, and they always seem to see you coming and beat a well-timed and tactical retreat. I’ve spent minutes chasing the same roach, behind the jars of nuts and dried fruit, in and out of drawers and around the sponge next to the sink, until its final taunting dash across the counter into a crack in the wall. Then, after I spend all that time chasing them with intent to murder, they just appear out of nowhere, cast themselves on their backs, and decide to die. Alone.

Cockroaches are “them,” the ultimate Other for whom we unreservedly nurture a deep and violent loathing. Ours is a conscionable hate: no one except the Buddhists will tell you not to kill them.

There is nothing new about this. Pliny the Elder, likely echoing an established sentiment two thousand years ago, urged that when discovered cockroaches be summarily put to death. Over the years, they became a handy metaphor for dictators to apply to society’s undesirables, stoking public fears in order to expedite their often violent removal. And I definitely wanted them out of my kitchen.

My apartment in Cape Town is the first home I’ve shared with roaches. They were here before us, of that I’m almost certain—I keep a clean kitchen, but my building is getting on in years, so various fissures in the plaster and tile seem to have availed access for a sizeable colony.

To be honest, I’m scared of roaches. The first time I spotted one on the countertop, I definitely jumped and probably emitted a minor noise of distress before lunging for a paper towel and proceeding with the execution. (It’s a grim process. You scoop them up and then squeeze, progressively harder, until you feel the thorax explode in an almost-audible pop.) My fear is not particularly rational; there is no great and insidious history behind my relationship to cockroaches. The first occasion I remember even seeing one was as a teenager, on a trip to Texas, when out one night I noticed small lizards dashing around the pavement and occasionally scampering across my sandaled feet. I pointed them out to my friend, who smiled sympathetically and then let me in on some cold, hard truths—such as, lizards don’t have six legs. (It was around this time I also realized I needed glasses.)

But those were American cockroaches, enormous brutes that can grow up to about two knuckles’ length. In Cape Town, some brief entomological research yielded that I have German cockroaches (or rather they have my kitchen). These don’t grow much bigger than a fingernail. And they, along with every other kind of roach, are just about harmless.

Most species of cockroach live in tropical or subtropical forests and carry on like other insects, but about thirty types cohabitate with humans, and it’s likely they’ve been doing so forever, so to speak. Human history is dwarfed by the supreme longevity of the cockroach. Their first ancestors appeared about three hundred million years ago, with “modern” roaches fanning out into every corner of the Pangaean supercontinent by around 150 million BCE. Most of us have heard about, if not experienced, how damned difficult it is to kill roaches. Yes, some can live up to a week without a head, go a month without food, endure forty-five minutes without air—but try surviving three mass extinctions, including the Permian, in which a whopping 96 percent of all life on earth died out, even as roaches were still in their childhood. As with the tardigrade, the microscopic “water bear” and hardiest animal on the planet, evolution struck the jackpot with the cockroach.

The ancient human relationship with roaches has in fact been quite fruitful. Roaches eat just about anything, and in the case of those species that started hanging around human beings, “anything” comprised a whole lot of waste and grime that was better off in a roach’s belly than mucking up a human dwelling. For most of human history, cockroaches were more of a highly discreet cleaning staff than they were pests. They came out after dark, munched whatever crumbs and scraps were scattered about, and retired before anyone woke up. Quite contrary to popular belief, roaches do not carry diseases internally and are actually fastidiously clean in their habits, frequently—not unlike cats—grooming themselves. In truth, roaches seem to have a fairly low opinion of us, and have been observed undertaking their cleaning regimen immediately after touching a human.

Cockroaches probably ran into ancestors of the modern-day human pretty early, finding the dwellings of nomadic apes to be particularly rich foraging grounds, so in their own way they’ve observed the evolution of this strange, curiously frail bipedal. Hominids (that’s us) began to walk upright somewhere in eastern Africa a very long time ago. With some disputed estimates looking back as far as seven million years, we know for sure that Lucy, that famous Australopithecus discovered in Ethiopia in the 1970s, was strolling about comfortably some 3.2 million years ago. Lucy was still notably simian, both in countenance and in the way her long fingers hung down past her knees; not until about two million years ago did the first human-ish hominid appear on the scene.

We might recognize Homo erectus as a very-great-grandparent by its looks, but it was also the first hominid to act decidedly human in its marked inability to stay in one place. Across 1.8 million swashbuckling years, H. erectus spread from eastern Africa all the way to modern-day Indonesia. Along the way they made use of controlled fire and primitive tools, lived in organized social bands, and spoke a very basic language. H. erectus is the longest-lived hominid to date and actually coexisted with modern human beings for more than half our tenure as a species.

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Looking back through the sheaves of evolutionary history, one is increasingly overcome by the feeling that life is nothing more than an endless game of roulette. One can almost hear the little ball whir by as it traverses an infinite possibility of slots before finally coming to rest on a number: a species, the result of a million-and-one unsuccessful bids for existence, cashes out its winnings and makes a go of it. The cockroach won big. The hominid—well, I suppose we should always hope it’s too soon to be sure, but our line has already come extraordinarily close to being terminated.

Seventy thousand years ago, H. erectus disappeared. Likely as not there will always be debates about exactly why, but its extinction was more or less coterminous with another event, the Toba eruption. Lake Toba in present-day Sumatra is the biggest lake in Indonesia—100 km long, 30 km wide, about 500 m deep—and is also the gaping crater of one of the largest known volcanic eruptions on earth. The explosion was gargantuan. It was one hundred times larger than the well-documented 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. That blast killed an estimated one hundred thousand people on impact—and at least that many more died in the following year of volcanic winter, popularly called the “Year Without a Summer,” when worldwide temperatures plummeted, crops failed, and famines ensued. The far more catastrophic Toba event delivered a volcanic winter—in which ash disperses into the atmosphere and clouds the sun—that lasted anywhere from six to ten pummeling years and initiated a thousand-year-long cooling effect. And if history has anything to teach us, it’s that climate is synonymous with the death or survival of life.

Homo sapiens had already been kicking around for about one hundred and thirty thousand years at the time of the Toba eruption. Cockroaches pulled through just fine—after those three mass extinctions, Toba was a mere hiccup—but H. sapiens fared so poorly that contemporary geneticists estimate only two to ten thousand individuals were left straggling along worldwide. In other words, we avoided extinction by whatever skin Toba didn’t scrape off our teeth; all seven billion of us are descended from those sturdy individuals who kept their heads up and bore a decade of darkness.

Casting our nets back into the mists of unrecorded history is a continual act of sketching constellations out of prophecy and conjecture, somewhat legitimized by the latest in scientific technology that will reveal itself as hopelessly antique with the passing of another few years. We cannot absolutely verify this speculative cause-and-effect about Toba, but the eruption of a supervolcano makes it a lot easier to draw conclusions than the slower, more mitigated dwindling-out of one of our even more recent relatives, Homo neanderthalensis.

The cartoonish image of Neanderthals as ogre-ish, dull-witted cavemen has turned out to be far off the mark. Recent research has revealed a cousin close to H. sapiens in genetics, coeval or perhaps more sophisticated in employing technology, and leading a highly developed social and ritualistic life. Neanderthals also conceived something very like religion—probably before modern humans. Numerous excavations across Europe and the Middle East have revealed that Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead and, some anthropologists think, bestowed such artifacts of affection as flowers upon the corpses of the deceased. If the more closely studied history of H. sapiens is at all instructive, careful arrangement and deliberate burial of a body mark a sacred regard for death, and possibly a belief in or conception of an afterlife. What astonishes is that the earliest discovered Neanderthal burial sites in Krapina, Croatia, antedate any discovered H. sapiens burials by thirty thousand years.

We have a tendency to view ourselves as evolution’s apotheosis: the be-all, the end-all, the very raison d’être of life itself. This belief is reflected in the Biblical creation myth: in Genesis, God’s final act was to fashion a creature in His own image. God told the first man (because apparently women were second class from the very beginning) to go forth and multiply, allowed him to name all the plants and animals, and instructed him to rule over them and to subdue the earth. The whole of Creation was generated for man to exploit according to his whim.

This has proven fairly prophetic, at least concerning the past ten thousand or so years. But we would be fools to think we are masters of the whole of nature. The earth is more than four billion years old; we are a speck on the eyelash of the whole body of this planet’s life, and we are not so utterly unique as we may wish; the Neanderthal, before going extinct, was keeping pace with the development of H. sapiens, and there is no reason to think they were cognitively inferior—especially if they were the first to invent God. We are not the only of our kind; H. erectus vanished rather recently in evolutionary terms, and H. floresiensis, the hobbit-hominid native to the Indonesian island of Flores, disappeared even later. Our genealogy continues to grow richer: in 2015 a kind of ossuary discovered in a cave in South Africa yielded a previously unknown species of hominid, H. naledi. Yet we are not impregnable: the last time a supervolcano erupted, we lost at least one of our hominid cousins, and humans themselves almost died out. Neither are we the most successful: remember the cockroach.

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I climb Table Mountain when I need to think. It looms over Cape Town, a sweeping horizontal escarpment of ancient sandstone often wreathed in mystical swaths of cloud. The mountain is as old as cockroaches. I take one of the less-frequented tracks on the Atlantic seaboard, zig-zagging across the slopes behind Camps Bay before veering up a precipitous ravine carved out by eons of trickling water. The trail, when there is one, wanders in and out of the still-extant stream, and on a hot day I take off my pack and plunge my face into hands full of cupped water. The ravine ends in a small cleft, over which the stream plunges a few meters and where I have to climb a short section of rock to get to the top of the mountain.

Table Mountain has no true summit, but is instead an undulating series of plateaus and small valleys coasting down the middle of the Cape peninsula. I have never been anywhere else like it on earth. From the ravine I emerge, alone, onto a gentle slope populated by a herd of sandstone boulders, all weathered into vivified shapes like a new and nearly animate genus of rough-skinned organisms. They seem to hunker, silently snuffling, in the thick and uncompromising snarl of foliage called fynbos, through which I find the narrow, oft-hidden trail. Seeing fynbos for the first time is what walking on another planet must be like. The fabulous geometry of leaf and bitter thorn, the pugnacious shocks of color and earthy commingling with the soil, the vast, fantastical variety of living matter—quite literally I am walking through one of the rarest ecosystems in existence. With over nine thousand distinct species, fynbos is one of the most diversified of the world’s six floral kingdoms. Yet the plants grow only in a small crescent of rugged coast along the southwestern tip of Africa: some fifteen hundred species are found on Table Mountain alone, and nearly double that number on the entire peninsula, making the mountain and its environs home to the richest floral biodiversity on the planet.

I am briefly at ease among the fynbos. The wind whispers through tendril and weird flower; I see ocean to the west, south, and east; there is the slight gurgle of water and the gentle hum of crickets. I walk for a while and hear the splashing dollop of a shy frog. In a fold of the earth, between phantasmagoric flora and rugged sandstone, I see how little the millennia have changed this land so long home to H. sapiens. Then I crest a small rise, see that between ocean and mountain there is city, realize I am suspended above the same wave of urban development that has overtaken every continent. I am but scarcely secluded in a bastion of wilderness, the likes of which is rapidly disappearing all around the world.

In the city, I walk among ghosts of the vanished forests. On the mountain, I visit specters of the living past.

Dozens of species of fynbos have already gone extinct; dozens more are critically endangered. Many of the rarest types are found only within a cordon of several square kilometers, leading one local biologist to call Cape Town the floral “extinction capital of the world.” Endemism is the blessing of the Western Cape’s delightful oddity, but with so many variations of life found nowhere else in the world, the blessing has become a kind of curse that even a vast national park cannot undo. The perhaps-appropriately-named Table Mountain ghost frog, a Jurassic-era amphibian whose last shared ancestor with other frog species lived some one hundred fifty million years ago, is found in only a few ravines of the eastern-facing slope. Its numbers are rapidly declining, and it shares a bleak prognosis along with most of the world’s other amphibians.

Of all the animals, amphibians are in the greatest crisis. A full third of all recorded species are endangered, more than half in stark decline. Frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts are all extremely susceptible to pollution of the air and water; add widespread habitat loss and now-common fungal diseases, and many if not most of their ranks will become part of the lost, unreclaimable diversity of the earth’s past.

And we all know not just amphibians are endangered. The list of extinct species—hundreds and hundreds lost in just the past century—stretches on; the list of creatures flirting with extinction runs much longer. Tigers, pandas, snow leopards, and orangutans—all of them universally adored icons of nature—each number fewer than eight thousand individuals worldwide. Plants and animals are vanishing—not just species, but the sum total: according to one assessment of vertebral organisms over the past forty years, the aggregate of life forms on earth has been halved. In another forty years, researchers deem, the ocean will no longer have enough fish to feed us. At the current rate of depletion, within the span of a few generations some 75 percent of known plant and animal species will be gone.

The last time this many species disappeared over the brief span of a few centuries was sixty-five million years ago, when the dinosaurs’ fossil record runs suddenly cold. That was the most recent of the earth’s five great extinctions; the day you read this probably falls somewhere in the middle of the sixth. People, in subduing the earth, have set in motion the extermination of most of the world’s life forms.

I’m not of the opinion that we can save them—or rather, that we will save them. As E. O. Wilson noted in the New York Times this past March, the preservation of most ailing species is still manageable. But the bulk of humanity’s governments would have to abandon profiteering, and instead focus on protecting what swaths of wilderness still remain with the same vigilance they maintain in protecting the solvency of international banks. Wealthy countries would have to reach further than last year’s Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions, investing heavily in their own alternative energy development, and subsidizing the efforts of emerging economy countries with unprecedented generosity. Aggressive governments would have to deescalate, with global military budgets scaled back and the billions of bloodstained dollars redirected to cleaning up the filth steadily consuming rivers and oceans. Agriculture too ought to be overhauled, subsidized even more heavily to ease the transition to less toxic fertilizers, public campaigns undertaken to shift some cultures away from consuming meat seven days a week. And the fingers of multinational corporations must be pried from governmental necks, with new environmental technologies applauded instead of quashed as a threat to the coffers.

I like fairy tales. But I don’t believe in this one.

_____

I do not descend Table Mountain the same way I come up. I slither over moss-covered rocks in Skeleton Gorge, sweat the long, hot track down Kasteelspoort, or punish my knees on the most popular trail, Platteklip. Especially on a weekend, Platteklip Gorge draws enough characters to distract me from the masochistic descent. I hear accents from every continent, nearly enough languages to match, and I see faces and bodies in all colors, ages, shapes. In the summer, a man often sits by the trail playing a wooden xylophone for tips. He does well, a healthy crumple of green and yellow bills atop a pile of coins collecting before him. Warm, earthy notes echo between the walls of the gorge; “I think it soothes the people,” he told me once.

We all have enough in common to be soothed by such music. Every person hiking past the man playing the xylophone is related to those same few thousand individuals who survived after the Toba eruption seventy thousand years ago. We’re all Homo sapiens, and we share the same fate.

As biodiversity declines, the commingling and diversification of the human race is beggaring precedent. The world’s largest cities are as heterogeneous as the faces I see slogging up Platteklip, and getting more so by the day despite a global rise in demagoguery striving to prevent it. In 2015, one million people dared to cross the Mediterranean Sea in whatever craft was just barely watertight; thousands died, but most are in Europe trying to make a life. Some governments offer to take them in; others erect fences and dispatch riot police to keep them at bay.

Migrants are the latest undesirables to receive that pejorative moniker “cockroach,” but if these people do resemble the age-old insect it’s in their insuperable determination to survive. After braving a tempestuous sea only to be denied border crossings, legions have circled entire countries on foot to reach Europe’s north, where the economy is stronger and there is a better chance ofsecuring asylum. It is the biggest migration in Europe since World War II.

And that is just Europe. Everywhere, humanity is unbound and moving: To epicenters of commerce, like São Paulo, Lagos, Shanghai. To neighboring countries, where jobs are more plentiful. Or, within the same country, to the city from the village. Entire cultures are dissolving under the strain of war and poverty, migrating and re-forming into something new. It has never happened like this before. We stand at the cusp of great change.

Some say this change will kill us, or that various intervening forces will undo us. The death of much plant and animal life is certain to have dire consequences that no scientific prescience can truly forecast. The oceans, for instance, provide about a quarter of all humanity with its primary source of protein. Honeybees, crucial to the pollination of even those crops grown on massive factory farms, are dying out for as-yet-unknown reasons. Or our demise could result from the effects of a changing climate, which seem to become more identifiable and nefarious with each passing year. Storms are increasing in severity, droughts are becoming fiercer and longer, temperatures are plummeting or soaring, rising sea levels are drowning islands and will, eventually, overcome some of the world’s most populous cities.

And if none of that does it, we might just get around to a proper nuclear war.

Maybe Homo sapiens are just now hitting their stride, or maybe we’re nearing the end of our run. The long-term planetary consequences would, in actuality, be marginal. We’ d be giving ourselves wholly to solipsism by thinking that just because the human race is threatened, the world is going to end. The planet has survived more than four billion wringing, trying, life-demolishing years, those five mass extinctions, meteorites and volcanoes and diseases and famines and wars, and still life carries on. The world has been destroyed and remade again and again; we’re just perched on the edge of another transition.

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No matter what else we do to the planet, though, I am highly skeptical that we’ll manage to finish off the cockroach. In no small irony, one of the least desirable creatures seems to be one of the few we’ll be left with. Do we hate them because, deep down, we know they will take our place?

This idea really isn’t so far-fetched. In just four hundred million years, insects have quietly come to represent about nine-tenths of all life forms on earth. They are rife in every environment except where the temperature is perpetually below freezing, and are probably pleased as punch that overall global temperatures are increasing. Also worth noting: the cockroach is but one of many (and by no means the most fortified) kinds of insect that can withstand significant levels of radiation.

Dare we ask, then, if humans have a monopoly on intelligence? Elephants, octopuses, chimpanzees, and dolphins all possess advanced reasoning, memory, and communication skills (none of which saved the Chinese river dolphin, declared extinct in 2010), yet we seem to be the only species building skyscrapers and writing books. But remember: before Neanderthals died out they seem to have possessed the same—or at times accelerated—capacities for symbolic thought and cultural production. If they had persisted, mightn’t they have risen to the same stature as H. sapiens, with comparable prowess in technology and destruction? Would other intelligent animals not do so, given time?

At this point, there isn’t time for any other animals but insects. Advanced insect intelligence would look very different from what we regard as our own. Bees are among the smartest (despite their current proclivity for dying in vast numbers): whereas the first hominids likely communicated through varied tonal grunts, bees use a system of dances and the dispensation of odors—a kind of perfumed, whole-body sign language—to organize themselves for singular tasks involving thousands of individuals. (A swarm of bees handily demonstrates that vast numbers can be swiftly marshaled without the internet.) Can we imaginatively expound on what such systems could look like given another million years of development? Another ten million?

This concept has in fact already been elegantly explored by Hayao Miyazaki in his 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, where in a post-apocalyptic future relict human populations must learn to coexist with a race of intelligent, dinosaur-sized insects that has supplanted humans as the planet’s dominant species. Predictably, it takes the humans a long time to realize that the insects are not massive, dumb brutes; rather, they just communicate differently and have a unique set of priorities. Likewise, we can also hypothesize that maybe dolphins just didn’t want skyscrapers, but as long as intelligence remains defined by a fetishized will to power, the question is immaterial: dolphins will go extinct, unless through some stunning ingenuity they find a way to hang on, like the humans in Miyazaki’s future.

So do we mourn the world’s passing? Earth does not need the dolphin. Nor most certainly does Earth need me, or need you. Life on this planet did not blossom in some primordial pool (or fall from an interstellar asteroid) to embark on a 3.8-billion-year journey just to express us, a species we deem “conscious.” Life exists for its own unfathomable purposes, and will continue to do so long after we’re gone.

And we’ll go before insects. We will not have any stake in what becomes of them; maybe after our own extinction, insects will far surpass our capacity for metaphysical thought, or maybe they will carry on as they always have, without skyscrapers and books. The odd truth is that life is impervious to all assessments of value, abiding by two rules alone: it does not remain the same, and it continues. Therefore it cannot be mine to hold vigil over a cockroach’s death, slowly waving my arms in some kind of interspecies solidarity. For a quarter-billion years cockroaches have lain down and died for reasons of their own, and not because I cleaned the kitchen. These are not the meek, yet they may well inherit the Earth; they are far more ancient and gentle stewards of the planet than we will ever be.

We will weep when the dolphin goes extinct; we will mourn the last tiger and the last panda. We are delivering ourselves into a world of cockroaches and rats and feral dogs. But from no matter what perceived nadir, the world will move forward. Life will adapt, continue to grow and change itself, to try on new outfits, experiment with new fads. Humans, too, may go out of fashion—but life, in its perpetually re-processing, always-expanding self, will survive.

 

Sean P. Smith grew up in Montana and has lived and taught in the Middle East and South Africa. He currently resides in Hong Kong.