The American Association for the Advancement of Science is sending us all frequent emails urging us to join; perhaps they’re short of cash. (I’m not a member, as I oppose their DoSER program that tries to reconcile science and religion.) The AAAS often uses current events, like Trump’s election (they don’t do this explicitly, but refer to real facts rather than fake facts, as well as to events like The Science March) to try to recruit members.
Their latest appeal for membership and money uses the diversity trope to get members, but conflates evolutionary success with social success as judged by persistence and diversity (presumably STEM diversity involving gender and ethnic parity).
I’m all in favor of diversity, though I don’t know if it can be judged by parity (proportion in AAAS compared to proportion in population) if different groups have different preferences. But what bothers me here is the message—to scientists!—that the existing numerical preponderance of beetle species and individuals, or their persistence over time, is somehow a reason for making science more diverse. And what is the indication of “success” they use for species? Number of species that have resulted from diversification, persistence over time, or both? They aren’t always the same. Beetles appear about 270 million years ago, and we have many species. Coelocanths comprise only two living species of fish, but they originated at least 400 million years ago. They are far less diverse than beetles, but have persisted longer.
We should never use what is true in nature to buttress our behavioral and moral choices in society, and for two reasons. First, the diversity of species reflects genetic and environmental conditions that impinged on ancestors: beetles may have been small and able to adapt to many niches, with their geographical isolation contributing to their species diversity.
That has nothing to do with promoting diversity within a scientific society, which is a social issue. And that leads to the second reason: what exists in nature is not always a good model for how we should construct societies.
In his new book The Evolution of Beauty, for example, Richard Prum makes much of female “sexual autonomy” in birds as a buttress for human feminism: because bird females make choices, this supposedly supports the moral stand that women should be able to make choices. And I agree with the feminism part, but what if Prum talked about deer, or elephant seals, or bedbugs, with the latter group showing “traumatic insemination” in which males bypass female choice by injecting their sperm directly through the female body wall, often injuring or even killing them? Which group you study will give you different moral lessons.
The upshot is that we should decide how to construct society without modeling it on animals in nature, for that makes our morality and social structure susceptible to changes in how we understand nature. Yes, in some cases biology can inform how we decide to structure society (example: research on whether fetuses can feel pain may, for some, affect how they feel about abortion), but in most cases it shouldn’t—and certainly not in the comparison between beetle diversity and AAAS diversity.
By all means promote social and scientific diversity, but don’t do it by pointing to beetles, for crying out loud. I would suggest, for instance, pointing to women or minorities whose contributions were undervalued, or who for many years simply weren’t able to contribute to science because of prejudice and barriers to entry.
Update: Note that one comment below suggests that the insect shown in the photo isn’t even a beetle (in the order Coleoptera), but is a shield bug (in the order Hemiptera). Another reader has confirmed that no, this isn’t a beetle: the image is in fact already extant on the Internet and was identified as a jewel bug—a hemipteran. Double shame on you, AAAS!