Pixar's post-apocalyptic love story Wall-E finished No. 2 at the box office over the Fourth of July weekend after hauling in $65 million the weekend before. The film depicts a future Earth abandoned by humans, blanketed in garbage, and nearly devoid of life. At the outset, Wall-E, a robot, has but one companion: a friendly cockroach. How did we come to believe that cockroaches will outlive everything else on Earth?
The cockroach survival myth seems to have originated with the development of the atom bomb. In The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore,
journalist Richard Schweid notes that roaches were reported to have
survived the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading some to believe
that they would inherit the Earth after a nuclear war. This idea spread
during the 1960s, in part due to its dissemination by anti-nuclear
activists. For example, a famous advertisement sponsored by the
National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and referenced in a 1968 New York Times article
read, in part, "A nuclear war, if it comes, will not be won by the
Americans … the Russians … the Chinese. The winner of World War III
will be the cockroach."
There is at least a modest scientific
basis for the myth: Cockroaches are more resistant to radiation than
humans and nearly all other noninsect animals. This is because they are
relatively simple organisms with fewer genes that might develop
mutations. Roach cells also divide more slowly than human cells, which
gives them more time to fix problems caused by radiation, such as
broken strands of DNA. Whereas a person will certainly die from a
radiation dose of 1,000 rads, cockroaches can withstand more than 10 times that amount. (For comparison, a full-body CT scan gives a dose of 2 or 3 rads.)
In any case, the cockroach is a proven
survivor. Most researchers believe the roach's fossil record dates back
to approximately 300 million B.C., a period predating dinosaurs by
nearly 70 million years. Additionally, the roach knows how to get by
during tough times: It can survive on dead or decaying organic matter
and can even live without its head for more than a month.
thanks George Beccaloni of London's Natural History Museum, Grzegorz
Buczkowski of Purdue University, Andrew Karam of Rochester Institute of
Technology, Joseph Kunkel of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst,
and journalist Richard Schweid.