Some public acceptance of a recent hissy fit by PETA and some other animal rights organizations over President Obama's swatting of a fly reveals a serious shortfall in recent American biology education.
Across all animals, the fly Order Diptera (two-winged insects) contains by far the most serious vectors of human diseases worldwide. House flies, sand flies, mosquitoes and other flies are responsible for literally hundreds of millions of people suffering chronic illness every year. Many flies serve as necessary vectors (carriers) of diseases. While some diseases such as malaria occur more in tropical areas, others such as varieties of equine encephalitis are found in the U.S.
The reproductive potential of most of these flies is dramatic. Generally they invest in huge numbers of offspring in order to ensure that a few reach maturity to mate and reproduce. That means that the vast majority of eggs laid, and young produced, will die before maturity, a "natural" event even when humans are not involved. For a fly that lays a thousand eggs, 998 of them will likely be crushed by a bird beak, wrapped up and externally digested by a spider, or otherwise feed a food chain. No one mentions this "natural carnage." A President swats one, and he is accused of cruelty!
The main effective control for these diseases is in controlling the vectors that spread the disease. Failure to reduce the numbers of these various flies means more people and animals will suffer. To stop killing flies, especially in the tropics but in temperate areas as well, would mean an increase in food contamination in restaurants here as well as an upsurge in malaria in the tropics, and much more human and animal suffering in total. I mention animal suffering since many of these disease agents circulate among wild animals; humans are often a side transmission from this primary reservoir. We must continue to use flea collars on our pets and that oily shampoo for head lice for our schoolchildren, and we have nothing to apologize for.
Modern hygiene and pharmaceuticals have reduced the impact of these infectious diseases in North America to the point that many Americans no longer appreciate the need to kill flies. Yellow fever and malaria were clear and present dangers in the 19th Century. Today equine encephalitis is rare enough that mosquito control is seen more as nuisance control for a backyard party than as a matter of life-and-death (which it still is). This is a self-defeating aspect of scientific advances: they eliminate the experience-base that motivated the public to support the research and eradication in the prior generation.
Supposedly, our educational system would teach this disease history and maintain our value for a scientific view of disease vector control. It has not. Zoology, microbiology and human anatomy/physiology are missing from the high school curriculum in the National Science Education Standards and have consequently been struck from many state standards. Indeed, many university biology teacher training programs no longer include zoology or human anatomy/physiology coursework. As fewer students have farm experiences, more students are susceptible to the superficial assertion that all animals, from sponges (no nervous system) to mammals, are able to suffer and therefore have rights.
President Obama's swatting of that fly was not inhumane. On the contrary, it was a very humane action that society must continue to take in a far wider arena to prevent disease vectoring and substantial suffering by human and animal hosts alike.
About the author: John Richard Schrock, PhD is an Entomologist, Professor of Biology and Director of Biology Education, Department of Biological Sciences, Emporia State University and a member of several academic and professional committees and boards, including the board of the NAIA. He is writing here as an individual.