The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

In which I LOL at an old-school National Geographic article and talk briefly about sexism.

One of my Xmas prezzies was a digital compilation of every National Geographic issue since 1888.  Très cool.   This little gem consists of 6 disks of full-colour issues whose articles are fully searchable by topic, author, year, etc.   Although I dearly loved the sight of yellow row upon yellow row adorning my old bookshelf, I eventually donated my own hard copies to an elementary school because a) they took up too much space and b) they were simply not practical.  The searchable index of this electronic version is a godsend, not to mention user-friendly and visually appealing.

So I plug “insects”  into the search engine, and find an article from May 1959 entitled “GIANT INSECTS OF THE AMAZON” (bah-bah-baaaaaah!) by Paul A. Zahl, a NG naturalist and senior editor at the time.   Sounds like a goodie, so I click.

It is, overall, an interesting article peppered with good photographs, mainly centered on the authour’s quest to get his hands on specimens of the impressive and elusive Titan beetle, Titanus giganteus (now I know what to ask for next Christmas).  But what struck me most, almost to the point of distraction, was the archaic and overly anthropomorphic writing style.

The article begins with the authour’s harassment of giant ants, Dinoponera gigantea (and I’m not using “harass” in the sarcastic sense, he literally smashes up their colony with a pick, axe, shovel, then comments on how “sorrowful” and “frustrated” the evicted ants appeared the next day.  How nice of him to notice).  

Zalh refers to individual ants, which are almost exclusively female, as “ladies”, “huntresses”, “sisters”.  Those he collected in a jar as they returned to the colony from foraging become part of  “his harem”.     He places a large number of them in a cage with soil for observation.  Later that day he spots a number of them clustered in a circle around a newly-deposited clutch of eggs, a scene which he describes thusly:

 The sisters were gathering around to honour the event, perhaps to act as midwives, certainly to serve as nurses to this brand-new ant life.

Excuse me a moment while I BWAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!  *sniff*  I’m sorry, but this is some funny stuff.  I’m as guilty as the next entomophile of assigning personalities to my tiny charges, just for funsies, but this stuff is RICH.   “Huntress“?  Who says that?*  “Harem”?  “Midwives”?  OMG!!!

It’s interesting to observe how writing styles and the acceptability of certain phrases/terms change with time.  I suppose that this type of narrative would have been considered colourful and amusing, and, really, socially relevant at the time.  Considering that “sexism” was not a widely used term until a decade after Zahl’s article was published, and the use of gender-neutral language was largely scoffed at prior to, oh, the early-to-mid 90s or so, I suppose I should read the article with this in mind.   It’s very hard not to “OMG” my way through it though.  

Very rarely have I come across this kind of language as a student/researcher of the 21st century, with the notable exception of one caricature of a professor (he wore tweed, received his degrees from Haaaaaahvard and insisted on being called “Professor” So-and-so, no exceptions).  Some of the crap that spilled out his mouth was so maddening, it would throw me off my game for entire lectures.  Days later,  I would find myself staring at lecture notes I couldn’t remember taking – my hand must have been dutifully working on auto-pilot while my brain was seething over Professor So-and-so’s latest sexist brain fart.**   This exception duly noted, I must acknowledge that while my chosen field is traditionally considered “male-dominated”, I have never felt demeaned, overlooked, patronized or otherwise oppressed in any way because of my gender.   It’s encouraging to see such a stark contrast between the attitudes and beliefs that cultivated Zahl’s report of his ant “harem” and the current reality for female scientists***. 

And on that positive note, enjoy this fun clip of researchers bagging a Titanus specimen in the field, complete with happy dance.

* even my WordPress spell-checker doesn’t recognize this word!

**the most maddening one involved his description of insect exoskeletons.  Exoskeletons are in part composed of overlapping layers of chitin; these layers are oriented in different directions, like plywood; this arrangement strengthens the structure.  The plywood analogy is a good one, but  Professor So-and-so started describing it like this: “So you girls in the room will probably not get this, but you men will: exoskeletons are blah blah blah”.  WHAT???  Three giant fails here: 1. assuming women don’t know what plywood is; 2. forging ahead with the analogy anyways, despite the (however erroneous) belief that half of  the audience won’t understand the explanation, and; 3. referring to the females using a noun usually reserved for children while referring to the males using adult terminology.  AUGH!!!

***while I recognize that there will always be exceptions, as well as ignorant a-holes, I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part, the playing field has leveled

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2 responses to “In which I LOL at an old-school National Geographic article and talk briefly about sexism.

  1. Ted C. MacRae January 3, 2010 at 1:42 AM

    It may be of interest to note that the fellow in the video is none other than Frank Hovore, a widely known and respected student of longhorned beetles. Frank spent his early years studying these beetles in California and western North America before focusing in later years on the Neotropics. He built a world-class collection of the family that rivals any other private collection in its significance. I was fortunate to receive mentoring from Frank when I first started studying these beetles back in the mid-1980s and had the fortune to meet him in person ~10 years later. Tragically, Frank suffered a fatal coronary in 2006 while on a collecting trip in Ecuador. He was only 61 – too young – but died doing something he loved very much. He was honored the following year with a memorial issue of The Coleopterists Bulletin (vol. 61, no. 2), for which I had the great honor to be one of the contributing authors.

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