Why Ants are Cooler than Flies

Dipterist Keith Bayless exposes a pernicious case of media bias:

Six new families of Diptera were described from newly discovered species in the last 6 years! None of these flies received the press coverage given to Martialis. There are a variety of explanations for this, including that

1) The fly descriptions were published in lower profile journals than PNAS

2) Many of the the new fly families evolved more recently than the first ant in the Martialis lineage

3) The level of public and scientific interest in ants inclines them to be better covered or

4) People who study ants are better at public relations.

I think Keith misses an even larger issue.

For most people, the Linnean category of "family" doesn't mean anything.  Joe Public has no reason to know that all ants are classified as a family while all flies are an order containing many families.  Instead, people tend to shoehorn nature into a set of basic types of organisms.  These types match, more or less, the set of heavily used common names.  As any taxonomist knows, the correspondence between the public's conception of basic types does not have to correspond to any particular taxonomic rank.  Cockroaches (Blattaria) are an entire order; Mosquitoes (Culicidae) are a family; Cows (Bos taurus) are a species.

Hence, "ants" are seen as a basic kind of organism, so are "flies", and "squirrels", and "squid" and so forth.  As an aside, the innate ability of the human brain to simplify nature into arbitrary categories is a major reason-if not the major reason- for the persistent appeal of creationism.  But I digress.

The consequence is that a newly discovered sister lineage to a basic "kind" of organism- an ant- will generate more buzz than the announcement of new lineages buried deep within another basic "kind" or organism- a fly.

Now, I happen to think this is an asinine way to approach biodiversity.  But no one put me in charge of designing human cognition, and I can't fault the vast majority of the human population that doesn't spend much time thinking about insects for taking mental shortcuts.

A second factor is the ease with which ants are anthropomorphized.  While the actual parallels between ant societies and human societies are weak, the fact remains that ants live in groups bearing some superficial resemblance to the way we live.  We relate to ants more easily than to flies.  So Hollywood makes movies about ants.  About flies, not so much.  And papers touting a new ant lineage make PNAS.  That's why I think Keith's #3 should top the list, and points 1 and 4 are mere correlates.  In the end, Dipterists face a much steeper uphill battle for popular recognition than we myrmecologists.

It should go without saying that this is deeply unfair to Dipterists, whose subjects really are one of life's most fantastic productions.   But hey, it could be worse.  Think of the poor Psocopterists.

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Hey, what's a Psocopterist?

You missed the simplest explanation: common people are kinda disgusted by flies (myself included) and not by ants. Maybe it's the fact flies are found so readily in, well, "disgusting" places ;-)

Ants can't fly but flies can, so flies are cooler.:)

Geez, ants are tiny, and yet they still kill and eat big animals. Flies just hope they are dirty enough to make you sick. We vote ANTS, ftw!

By everyoneelse (not verified) on 21 Sep 2008 #permalink

To the anti-fly posts here: "The most ecologically diverse group of insects is certainly the true flies, or Diptera... The true diversity of flies, in fact, probably vies with that of the Coleoptera because there are much higher proportions of undescribed Diptera"- Grimaldi & Engel. 2005. Evolution of the Insects. Anyway, Alex (sorry for putting words in your mouth) and I aren't saying there's some kind of intrinsic coolness

factor for which one group has a higher value, the reasons are instead psychological and sociological. Debating the relative 'coolness' of various insect groups is a fun but silly and futile argument that is ultimately detrimental to entomology.

To Alex- thanks for quoting my post! Those points were off the top of my head, so please forgive the lack of rigorous sociological data. Hmm, you're right about how the public considers the 'types' of organisms. Non-entomologists are always shocked when I tell them that there are 158,000+ described species of flies. I guess they think that flies are one 'type.' Some of the comments above me prove your point very well.

I'd like to also point out that even taxonomic ranks don't give us a great basis for evolutionary comparison, e.g. the mammal Order Carnivora has ~280 extant species, evolved ~55 mya, and are almost all predators. This is the size and age of a pretty large, not very old, and ecologically monotonous insect genus. A new species of carnivore would be all over the news, though. Benoit gets into this in a comment on my blog post.

So the discovery of a new fly family and the discovery of the sister group to all other ants are not the same thing in terms of age, number of species involved, and ecological importance. Some might argue successfully that the Martialis discovery is more important than some of the new fly families. Still, how many people have heard of Oreoleptidae before? You will next week!

Let's agree that Psocoptera are way cool and mammals don't match their hype.

"Non-entomologists are always shocked when I tell them that there are 158,000+ described species of flies."

There are 158k described species of flies???!!!!!! 8-O

"and I arenât saying thereâs some kind of intrinsic coolness factor for which one group has a higher value, the reasons are instead psychological and sociological."

"coolness" is a result of sociological and psychological factors. To a flower pollinated by flies, flies are way cooler than ants.

Saying that, there are 158k described species of flies???!!!!!! 8-O