Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hyper-castrating female insects: New York Times, what's your problem? You're creeping me out. Why?

"This Can't Be Love" read the headline. Indeed. It was one of those real "nature red in tooth and claw" stories, though with no blood visible in the elegantly grotesque pictures provided by the New York Times. (Photoshop, anyone?) I'm still wondering why they devoted nearly a full page in the Science section, between the start of the story and the jump, to this exercise in "geek chic" science journalism that's pretty much summed up in Carl Zimmer's lede. I could show the photos, but I won't -- you'll have to click on the hyperlink yourself, if that's how you get your jollies.
Across the eastern United States, a gruesome ritual is in full swing. The praying mantis and its relative, the Chinese mantis, are in their courtship season. A male mantis approaches a female, flapping his wings and swaying his abdomen. Leaping on her back, he begins to mate. And quite often, she tears off his head.

The female mantis devours the head of the still-mating male and then moves on to the rest of his body. “If you put a pair together and come back later, you’ll just find the wings of the male and no other evidence he was ever there,” said William Brown, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York in Fredonia.
Wow! Sexual cannibalism -- talk about castrating females. You'd have to call this hyper castration, or extreme castration -- not just the family jewels, but head, body, everything but the wings. What's going on here with this super-Freudian nightmare photographed in tasteful color in pleasant earth tones on a nice white seamless background? Are the women at the Times really getting that uppity? Are the men in charge really that worried? (I know Judith Miller gave Sulzberger a hard time when he let her go, but she didn't really bite off his head, did she?)

Seriously, guys -- what gives? I mean, we all learned in elementary school that praying mantises have this little quirk. Do we really need to dwell on it at such length? Sure, you cited some interesting speculation about evolutionary biology, but couldn't that have been briefly summarized? Is this really the most important science story of the week?

It used to be that the Science Times gave readers a really nice weekly summary of important developments in science. But lately, it's often been hard to find anything worth reading. The big stories seem to be growing more and more sensationalistic, with this as a prime example, and the little ones more and more trivial. I suppose it's just one more example of the Complete Tabloidization of American Life, but count me as a reader who isn't impressed.

But that's not all. Surely the Times editors are aware that this kind of journalism has a history -- and consequences. Most people think that the phrase "nature red in tooth and claw" came from Charles Darwin, or possibly Herbert Spencer, the father of "Social Darwinism." Not true -- it's from Tennyson's "In Memoriam." But the phrase does evoke the bloody tales of nature's bloody struggles for survival that have been used metaphorically ever since the 19th century to justify the excesses of laissez faire capitalism. At a time when the Bush administration is leading us full speed ahead back to a 19th century world of robber baron capitalism and every-man-for-himself politics, reporting like this is hardly without consequences. As David Horton wrote in the Huffington Post a couple months ago:
These 'Republican friends' (surely an oxymoron?) have a long history for their ideas. As another poster pointed out, this is essentially a restating of 'Social Darwinism', which became briefly popular in the late nineteenth century to justify the gross inequalities in British society, and British imperialism, before it became obvious that it was rubbish. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh? When neocons talk in this way they are thinking of the phrase 'nature red in tooth and claw', which they think comes from Darwin, but in fact comes from a poem by Tennyson. This phrase in turn comes from 'Survival of the fittest', which again is thought of as Darwin, but initially came from Herbert Spencer, who began the idea known as Social Darwinism. Darwin had originally just talked about 'natural selection' by analogy with 'artificial selection' (what farmers and horticulturists do), but added the term 'survival of the fittest' later in recognition of Spencer's ideas.

The image of course is of the triumphant buck deer, antlers bloodied, killing all his rivals, or the male lion, supreme after chasing off the young males from the pride. And it is the image of George Bush in his flight suit, mission accomplished, or Dick Cheney with shotgun slaughtering tame birds. It is the world of Gordon Gecko's 'greed is good', Maggie Thatcher's 'no such thing as society' and Ayn Rand's promotion of selfishness, and of economic rationalism, and of every empire's notion of imposing civilisation on inferior beings. It is the Dickensian world of Victorian England and of 21st century America, with deserving poor and undeserving poor, of every man for himself, and of wealth as a measure of virtue and success. And it is the world in which the people who benefit from it can say, with a straight face, that capitalism has defeated socialism because of 'human nature'.
So, again, while I appreciate your cleaning up the blood, I'm still wondering -- what gives? Is this article really about the role of women at the Times? Is it meant to justify predatory capitalism? Or are you just trying to sell newspapers and drive website click-throughs?

I suspect it's the latter. I just wish you'd remember that some of us actually buy the Times because it's not a tabloid. Hope this doesn't signal a trend -- and please spare us the "killer sting ray" stories next week.

1 comment:

Dr Diablo said...

I don't want mere photos of the carnage; I want footage! Can you supply a video link? I have Windows Media Player and RealPlayer.

The NY TIMES is not a tabloid but something far worse. When I read in WEEKLY WORLD NEWS at the checkout that Bat Boy disrupted Elvis's secret wedding by swooping among the guests, it only takes me a couple of days to conclude that it's probably fabrication. The TIMES, in contrast, prints heart-tugging journalistic reports from The Other America which move you until you learn--months later, when the editors do--that the reporter made it up. The TIMES has been riding its reputation for years.

In its defense, though, the TIMES has to compete with all of the shootings and other graphic stuff captured by surveillance cameras and used by internet news sites to attract the teen audience. A TIMES science feature about aphids just isn't going to do it.