19 March 2012
Just when I was afraid The New York Times was going all soft in the scientism department, and I might have to retire the Human Nature Watch, this front-page news flash arrived to give the column a reprieve: ”Learning from the Spurned and Tipsy Fruit Fly” (Mar. 16).*
In this piece, we are informed that fruit flies not only like a nip now and then—that would be old news—but also that males drink more heavily after failing in an attempt at mating.
In short, scientists have discovered that Drosophila drink to drown their sorrows.
Sorry. I’m picking up bad habits from reading this stuff.
Like most articles reporting on the latest scientific findings that are alleged to throw light on human nature, this one is written in that irritating combination of sophomoric facetiousness and pious credulity that is unique to science journalism.
Here is how Benedict Carey introduces the topic and explains the main finding:
They were young males on the make, and they struck out not once, not twice, but a dozen times with a group of attractive females hovering nearby. So they did what so many men do after being repeatedly rejected: they got drunk, using alcohol as a balm for unfulfilled desire.
And not one flew off in search of a rotting banana.
Fruit flies apparently self-medicate just like many humans do, drowning their sorrows or frustrations for some of the same reasons, scientists reported Thursday. Male flies subjected to what amounted to a long tease—in a glass tube, not a dance club—preferred food spiked with alcohol far more than male flies that were able to mate.
To test the relationship between stress and alcohol in fruit flies, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, allowed one group of male flies to mate freely with available virgin females. Another group of male flies had the opposite experience: the females they mingled with had already mated, and were thus indifferent to any approach.
After four days, the flies in both groups fed in glass tubes outfitted with four straws, two providing a regular diet of yeast and sugar and two containing yeast, sugar and 15 percent alcohol.
Fruit flies as a rule will, like many humans, develop a taste for alcohol and, in time, a preference for the 15 percent solution. But the rejected flies drank a lot more on average, supping from the spiked mixture about 70 percent of the time, compared with about 50 percent for their sexually sated peers.
The researchers conducted several additional experiments to rule out other explanations. The flies were apparently using the alcohol as a way to compensate for their frustrated desire.
Okay. Why didn’t you just say that to begin with?
Because the unvarnished scientific summary would never merit the front page of The New York Times.
The stupid jokiness is not just the sugar that makes the bitter pill of science go down more smoothly—it’s the whole story. Without the anthropomorphic projection, there is no story. Certainly, no story worthy of the front page.
The real story—what makes a bunch of boring experiments front-page news—is clearly the tiresome insinuation that human beings are “just like” fruit flies.
Remember that the article is entitled “Learning from the Spurned and Tipsy Fruit Fly.” The key word here is “learning.” What is it, exactly, that the experiments are supposed to teach us?
Well, it’s interesting in a way that Drosophila like alcohol, though the fact that animals in general are susceptible to alcohol and can become intoxicated, just like humans, has been known for a very long time. It’s mentioned my ancient writers.
Nowadays, you may view drunken monkeys, elephants, and other animals staggering about on YouTube to your heart’s content, if that’s your idea of yucks. So, it’s not exactly front-page news.
What does all this imply?
That the human mind is instantiated in the physical brain? Well, we didn’t exactly need the scientists to tell us that. Anyone who’s ever had a beer—or even an aspirin—realizes that full well.
True, in the course of these experiments, they have apparently discovered a new chemical, neuropeptide F, that plays a role in fruit flies analogous to the role that the known neuropeptide Y plays in humans.
What is that supposed to tell us? That animal brains are like human brains in significant respects? Whoever doubted it?
Clearly, the culture wars are lurking in the background, here. But it simply does not follow from the fact that human beings have evolved from other animals—or even that NPF is similar to NPY—that fruit fly behavior throws any light on human behavior. Once again, the NYT is peddling a blatant non sequitur as news.
If you really want to learn about the problem of alcoholism, you’d be better advised to read The Drinker, by the great German novelist Hans Fallada, or Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, by the marvelous British writer Patrick Hamilton, instead of news reports about fruit flies.
Does anybody actually believe this drivel? Is it all pure cynicism—because it sells newspapers? Or is it because the NYT wants to convince all of us we’re not responsible for our drinking—or anything else? Which is worse?
The only actual news in the article is the supposed link between alcohol consumption in the fruit flies and stress.
Mr. Carey admits that this, too, is hardly unexpected:
Scientists have long known that other species have their methods of stress reduction. In lab studies, mice, rats and monkeys drink more after periods of isolation, studies suggest; the same is true of mice that are bullied or are victims of aggression.
So, why should the stress of failing at mating be any different? Why is it news at all, much less front-page news?
Clearly, it’s not. But it was just too good for the NYT to pass up. When it comes to pop-science journalism, the Gray Lady is more of a bottle blonde.
When looked at properly, the whole article is nothing but a sleazy piece of sensationalism. There’s not a grain of real science in it that’s worth putting on the front page.
It looks like the Human Nature Watch column will be with us for a good, long while yet.
Next: Responding to “Your Brain on Fiction”
* Human Nature Watch is an ongoing series of articles examining mass-media presentations of contemporary scientific images of human nature.