Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Hating my own people

t's been a while, sorry about that. In my defence I have been very busy, attending a conference, eating icecream, getting told by Lucy Mangan that I don't have to do aerobics with Lou, learning how to make fruitflies bisexual* and acquiring third degree burns whilst trying to make ampoules. But much of the past week has been spent in various libraries in search of literature on M.sorbens.
I've been to the Natural History museum library to see the first description of the little blighter, written in 1830 by a slightly odd German obstetrician called Weidemann who also liked flies and had his friends in the colonies send him things that they found drowning in their drinks. Entomologists in those days were a weird bunch (arguable still are) but he wasn't as odd as this dude. Unfortunately the description is written in German, and in Gothic script to boot, but by a bizarre coincidence my Dad studied Old High German for his Masters. If I was feeling uncharitable I'd suggest that this was the first time this has come in useful for him.
I've also been spending a lot of time in the British Library. I do love going there – it's very rare that I end up in that part of London and it gives me the opportunity to have a sandwich, buy tickets to the London cinematic event of the century and watch the bats swoop down to catch insects off the Barbican pond at dusk. I also love the library itself, full of lovely helpful people who seem utterly delighted to be asked to help find some information on an obscure little fly written a hundred years ago in another language. Having worked in information myself I know this is impossible to fake. However this whole experience has convinced me that what I certainly don't love is the Belgians.
I am ¼ Belgian, spent some of my childhood in Belgium and have always been slightly resentful of the fact – if you say you grew up in France everyone assumes you're elegant, sophisticated and effortlessly chic, but say you grew up Belgium and if people assume anything at all it's that you spent your childhood eating chips and mayonnaise and lived in a city whose emblem is a little boy taking a slash (all of this is of course accurate). But this simmering resentment has been brought to the boil by the recent experience of trying to find a reference to M. sorbens in a report of an expedition to the Belgian Congo, as it then was. Now no colonial nation exactly covered themselves in glory in Africa but the Belgians were probably the biggest bastards of the lot of them. This is a genuine scan of what happened when everyone's favourite boy reporter of uncertain sexuality went to The Congo:

And that sort of attitude applied to the people as well as the animals. It has been estimated that under the 23 year rule of Belgium's King LĂ©opold as many as 10 million of The Congo's original inhabitants were killed, half the population. But now in a spectacular example of poor taste and misplaced priorities I'm going to say that if that wasn't enough to make you angry at the colonial Belgians they were also terrible at organising information.
Between 1933 and 1965 a number of zoological expeditions went into the Albert National Park, caught and squashed anything they thought looked interesting and published a number of reports on what they found. These reports could be written in English, French, Flemish or German, and some are written in all four. They are numbered, but the numbering doesn't correspond to date, taxonomy or any logical sequence I can fathom. There are over 100 of them. No one ever thought to produce an index. And in the fifties for no apparent reason they suddenly decided to start writing about volcanoes instead before switching back to insects. In one of these reports there is a crucial reference to M. sorbens, and the most efficient way I can think of to find it is to read through them all one by one.
Still, at least it looks like I'll be eating a lot of sandwiches in the near future.

Sorbens itself - what all the fuss is about
*genetically engineer them to lack a sense of smell so they can't tell the difference between males and females.

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