Friday, 29 June 2012

Einstein, Darwin and bee apocalypse

Bee swarm, Majorfield Road, Topsham, 12th May 2012

An update to Tracking bee story (9th June 2008) and That bee story again (13th May 2010).

Bonnie Taylor-Blake kindly e-mailed me with a link to her further exploration of the origins of the urban myth (much-repeated in popular ecology articles) that Einstein said: "If the bee disappears off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left". (Wrong, whether he said it or not - see On Einstein, Bees, and Survival of the Human Race).

In a post on the LINGUIST List, the American Dialect Society's discussion group's listserv) - Einstein on bees revisited ( 29 Jun 2012, and followups here) - Ms Taylor-Blake tracks a number of precursors to the story, including a 1941 letter to The Canadian Bee Journal, in which an Ernest A Fortin ascribes to Einstein the statement "Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive", and a number of Charles Darwin quotations about the ecological interconnections involving bees.

Despite regular debunking, the bogus Einstein quote still regularly appears in media articles. For example: This mite be the bees' worst enemy (Sydney Morning Herald, 26th June); No sign of our extinction yet (Londonderry Sentinel, 13th June); Honeybees call Morris Canal Park in Clifton home (, 8th June 2012); Einstein was right - honey bee collapse threatens global food security (The Telegraph, 6th February 2011); and so on.

A quick Google finds Ms Taylor-Blake to be "a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina, amateur word sleuth and the American Dialect Society's foremost authority on 'Black Friday' etymology": see The origins of Black Friday (Journal Sentinel Online, 24th Nov 2011). She also runs a blog, Spokelore ("Thoughts on folklore surrounding quotations, expressions of the spoken word, and apocryphal attributions"). There aren't many posts at present, but there are very good articles on the folklore of American political rhetoric (Dirty Politics: Smathers, Pepper, and Quasi Malediction in American Political Folklore) and the anecdote of charging WW2 Japanese soldiers yelling, "To hell with Babe Ruth".

- Ray

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