In a recent episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell broadcast a lecture he gave on the Taxonomy of the Modern Mystery Story at the New Orleans Book Festival. It is, as promised, delightful rather than persuasive and the central observation seems true, now that he pointed it out.

Police procedurals, in which he includes thrillers and spy novels, fall into four distinct categories.

  • In Westerns (Jack Reacher) there is no sanctioned authority and it is up to ordinary citizens to be the law and do whatever it takes to dispense justice.
  • Easterns (Dragnet, anything by Ed McBain) feature highly competent cops doing a fine job.
  • Northerns (Holmes, Poirot) feature incompetent policemen who could not solve a crime if it squirted cider in their ear and have to rely on a singular genius.
  • And in Southerns (John Grisham) all authority is malignant and corrupt and it usually triumphs in the end.

Gladwell then in Gladwell fashion makes a convincing case that each of these genres or stereotypes does actual policing a disservice because it fails to show the reality of police work, and he ends up calling for an end to that kind of thing in popular culture because -- gasp! -- it affects not only the public's attitude to the police but policing's attitude to itself

Yeah, right.

I did indeed find the whole thing delightful and in many respects thought provoking, although the thoughts it provoked were not so much about policing.1 My thoughts turned instead to natural history, at least on TV.

The Golden Age

There's this idea in natural history and ecology whose name I have been unable to remember. It is sort of related to the idea of a Golden Age, but the parameters are set by one's own experience. So, if you grew up when cod were so abundant that you "could walk across the Atlantic on the backs of them" then you would bemoan their decline when they were reduced to the point when you might have to lower your nets twice rather than once to fill your hold. That would become the new Golden Age, to be looked back at fondly when you needed a bigger, more powerful boat, huge nets and to spend weeks at sea to fill your hold. Rinse and repeat.

I believe that a steady diet of increasingly astonishing natural history footage has obliterated the ordinary person's sense of any kind of decline in the natural world. Their only experience of an ecosystem is through the lenses of photographers who endure long stays in remote places to capture what were once probably relatively common scenes. Those scenes are further enhanced by being selectively edited to remove the boring bits and enhance the drama, because of course they must. I wouldn't want to watch a day in the life of a cheetah any more than I would want to watch eight hours and five minutes (or even 6½ hours) in the life of the Empire State Building.

Like police procedurals, natural history programmes can probably be slotted into a relatively simple taxonomy. A Day in the Life of, A Year in the Life of, The Reproductive Imperative, Eat or be Eaten. They too present a simple and false picture of reality. And just as most police procedurals don't dwell on the root causes of crime (not that I know what they are) natural history shows have a long and dishonourable history of ignoring agriculture and other human activities that profoundly affect natural ecosystems.

Recently, some of the best natural history TV has begun to draw back the veil of obscurity, showing us just what it took to obtain the raw material for those jaw-dropping sequences. I welcome that, and would love to see more of it, highlighting just how empty the earth's ecosystems have become. As long as we continue to be fed miracle after natural miracle, I suspect it will remain incredibly difficult to believe that things are in really bad shape.

Just as I still find it really difficult to believe how few fish there are in the sea.

p.s. Part of Gladwell's schtick was to single out nurses, truckers and teachers, all of whom outnumber police officers in the US manyfold, and yet do not have an entire genre dedicated to their profession. There are over a million physicians, quite a few more than the 600,000 or so police officers, and I would argue that they too have enjoyed far more interest from popular culture than their numbers would merit. That's because, like police officers, they can have a tremendous impact on our own lives and medicine, like crime, offers great narrative possibilities. Have US medical dramas on TV influenced the public's attitude to medicine? You bet, although whether it informs their behaviour on questions of reproductive rights, or assisted dying, or "socialised" medicine, I have not yet discovered.

  1. Can you make the same argument cross culturally, for example from Dixon of Dock Green to Thin BLue Line? 

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