They are NOT fruit flies


In the recent kerfuffle over Sarah Palin’s disparaging remarks about “fruit fly” research, an important point was missed by the general public, scientists, and even Drosophila geneticists: she wasn’t talking about Drosophila. Now, this point has been clarified by a few people (notably Mike the Mad Biologist), and I think people are starting to get it. But it was remarkable how people automatically assumed she was talking about Drosophila.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t so remarkable, given that even Drosophila researchers refer to these little insects as “fruit flies”. The problem with that nomenclature is that Drosophila are not fruit flies. The olive fruit flies to which Palin was referring are true fruit flies (Tephritids), and these guys are major agricultural pests. She was actually criticizing applied research (as opposed to basic), which makes her comments even more absurd.

But everyone out there assumes that she’s ragging on Drosophila research (which, for the most part, tends to be quite basic in nature — note that basic does not imply worthless), even Drosophila geneticists. I’ve been notified of “Sarah Palin’s attack on Drosophila” by multiple Drosophilists, only to point out to them that she wasn’t going after us. Funny thing is, there is at least one Drosophila geneticist who also works on Bactrocera (the genus to which Palin’s olive fly belongs): Michael Eisen. He’s also fed about by the Drosophila/fruit-fly mix-up. And you should be too. The least we can hope for is that people who actually study Drosophila will know that they’re not fruit flies.


  1. #1 Nebularry
    October 27, 2008

    Do you really think Sarah Palin has the slightest clue that there is a difference in fruit flies? She’s clueless about everything else, I cannot imagine that she would know or care one whit about the differences in obscure insects. To her, it’s all elitist wackaloonery! No doubt, your discussion rests her case.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    October 27, 2008

    “They came for the polar bears, and I was silent. They came for the overhead projectors, and I was silent. They came for the Tephritids, and I was silent. Finally, they cam for the Drosophila, and there was no on left to help us.”

    Famous last words of a fruit fly.

  3. #3 Luke
    October 27, 2008

    While I agree that it was a bit sloppy to assume she was talking about Drosophila, you are also making a potentially erroneous assumption here. I think that many Drosophila researchers actually do know that Drosophila are not fruit flies, we just assumed that Sarah Palin does not know the difference. Since Tephritid research is relatively rare, it makes some sense to assume that Palin had made the common mistake.

  4. #4 Trin Tragula
    October 27, 2008

    I doubt that Palin understands the nature of the research she mocked, she got even the location wrong. The research is in Montpellier, not Paris. That did not help in identifying the earmark in question (There is only one earmark which shows up under a search for “fly” and “France.”)

    If you want to earn some points as a super-pedant, why don’t you use the correct scientific name of Sophophora? If you can’t even get that right, why should we believe anything you say?

  5. #5 Brian X
    October 27, 2008

    It was still ignorant on her part — as I understand it, this is part of an effort for California olive growers to upgrade their product, which is not exactly known for being shining examples of the species.

    Oh, wait. California. Not real America. Never mind.

  6. #6 Stephanie
    October 27, 2008

    It doesn’t matter..she is a stupid, anti-science creationist. This really seems surreal that someone like her is allowed to spew her ignorance on an international level… She is a cult leader.

  7. #7 RPM
    October 27, 2008

    I’m sure that the Drosophilists who are up in arms thought that Palin was calling Drosophila fruit flies. And I bet that most of them do actually know that Drosophila are not fruit flies, but still use the terminology because it is so pervasive. That doesn’t mean we can’t do some searching to realize that she’s not actually talking about Drosophila. This is a republican talking point that has been used multiple times. But Palin’s dog whistle was actually “France” not “fruit fly”. I’m being extremely pedantic, but that’s the way I roll.

    Also, Drosophila melanogaster do belong to the subgenus Sophophora, but, until the taxonomists do anything about it, they are still Drosophila melanogaster. I highly doubt that they’ll be renamed Sophophora melanogaster because of the abundance of literature referring to them as D. melangoster. The most likely solution to the paraphyletic nature of the Drosophila genus is to rename the other clades (ie, those not containing melanogaster), despite the fact the a species in one of the other clades has precedence for the name. Given that that would go against the rules of taxonomy, I doubt that anything will be done about it.

  8. #8 Michael Eisen
    October 27, 2008

    Maybe we should rename it Sophophora – to confuse Republicans looking to take revenge on all those Drosophilists who gleefully celebrated Palin’s remarks.

    There’s actually a meeting coming up next month to discuss the Drosophila/Sophophora issue (talk about a waste of federal science funding…). And RPM’s right – the outcome is almost certain to be a suspension of the normal rules by which paraphyletic taxanomic names are applied to the taxa to which they were first applied. So we’re not likely to see Sophophora melanogaster. Now Sophophora virilis… that’s another story.

  9. #9 Trin Tragula
    October 27, 2008

    Maybe we should rename it Sophomora, in honor of Palin.

  10. #10 Nattering Nabob of Negativism
    October 27, 2008

    She’s making judgements about fruit flies, yet she’s unaware she’s a fruitcake.

  11. #11 Phil
    October 27, 2008

    Thanks for the correction and the link. You are an ubergeek and appreciated for being so.

  12. #12 TomS
    October 29, 2008

    There is more information available at the news source ScienceNOW:

    The French Fruit Fly Fracas

    By Martin Enserink
    ScienceNOW Daily News
    28 October 2008


  13. #13 TomS
    October 30, 2008

    Maybe I’m a crackpot, but it seems to me that the misconception that you’ve pointed out here is spreading rapidly. Just recently, one of your fellow ScienceBlogs has reported on Hitchins writing about Palin, apparently accepting the identification of Drosophila-research as the object of her complaint.

  14. #14 Norman Doering
    October 30, 2008

    Well, if Drosophila melanogaster are not fruit flies, then I think we should all, from now on, stop calling them fruit flies and call them “Freedom Flies” in honor of Palin.


  15. #15 Rich Lawler
    November 2, 2008

    I wish Sarah Palin would just shut the fuck up already and go hunting with Dick Cheney. Hopefully this time his drunk-ass won’t miss.

  16. #16 Rich Lawler
    November 2, 2008

    By the way, I’m not actually! advocating gun violence in my above comment…it was just a joke.

  17. #17 ABP
    November 4, 2008

    While I don’t think anyone would disagree that it is (NOW) obvious that Palin was referring to tephritids on olives, this was not at all obvious in her speech.

    What was obvious in her speech is that she thinks fruit flies, and the French, are silly.

    This deserves rebuke. And the fact that D. mel is a model system for studying genetic determinants of autism, the topic of her speech, makes the rebuking—using D. mel as the example—especially powerful and delightful.

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