Sun, Jul 03, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Inside the minds of bugs

After studying and filming insects, 83-years-old entomologist Lee Sung-yang is convinced that bugs think, feel, forget and remember.

By Diana Freundl  /  STAFF REPORTER

Tainism is the religious tradition that says all living organisms have souls and, to avoid incurring negative karmic retribution, practitioners must not harm any life form, including plants and insects.

Lee Sung-yang (李淳陽) is not a Jainist, nor does he think twice about swatting away a mosquito, but what this 83-year-old entomologist has proposed is a theory laden with similar humanist rhetoric.

"Insects have minds and they use them. They can think, feel, forget and remember," said Lee during an interview at his home last week.

He continued by saying, if individuals accept his theory that insects have minds, then as a result people would treat the natural environment with more respect.

"It's easier to show consideration to something if you view it as an equal."

Insect behavior first became of interest to him during middle school while reading Jean-Henri Fabre's Souvenirs Enthomologiques. Fabre's conclusion was that insects act on biological instinct, and Lee reluctantly accepted this view until his own research suggested otherwise.

Lee enrolled at the Tokyo University of Agriculture in Japan where he studied plant pathology. After graduating with a doctorate, he returned to Taiwan and accepted a position as an entomologist researching control of insects on rice and soybean plants at the Agricultural Research Institute.

"My becoming an entomologist was a kind of fate. I didn't want to study ugly worms and bugs, but I wanted to be a researcher and this was the job I was hired to do. I am a man of curiosity, and gradually I found some aspects of my job appealing. Step by step my interest in insects developed," Lee explained.

His curiosity evolved into a decade-long obsession when in 1967, he began shooting Hidden Events a documentary intended to illustrate feeding, mating, parenting and self-defense habits of insects. Inspired by the1953 Disney documentary, The Living Desert, Lee wanted to uncover the marvels of the insect world the way that Disney had exposed the desert. He had previous film experience working on a commercial movie made for a chemical company, yet nothing prepared him for the epic project that would demand all his spare time and drain his savings account.

"Shooting insects is a kind of torture. They don't listen to you. I would be ready to shoot, and the moment I pressed down the shutter, poof, it flies a way," he said.

In order to capture 230 insects on film, Lee required a custom-made camera lens and a small set, which he fashioned himself. In 1977 he had two hours of footage that would gain him international recognition.

He first sent the material to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which responded by sending a team to Taiwan to produce a program based on the making of his documentary. He then produced a second edit of his film and sent it off again, this time to the US. Much to his surprise, Hidden Events took first prize in the Photographic Society of America International Film Festival.

Two documentaries and years of research later, Lee was ready to put some of what he had learned in writing. Raised during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, Lee speaks Japanese, Taiwanese and English with ease but struggles with Mandarin, therefore he choose to write his manuscript in English. After a deal fell through with a US company, he had the draft translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan in 1981. A second book in Chinese was released this year; however, he has yet to produce an English text.

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