When is a spider an insect? An arachnologist would tell you never. But, as a recent court case in America reveals, a spider is an insect when the powers that be bloody well tell you it’s an insect. Can’t argue with that.
Well, actually, we can. Just in case you need a refresher, spiders sit firmly within the arachnid class alongside mites, ticks and harvestman to name a few. Both insects and arachnids are arthropods, but they’re separated most notably by the difference in leg count – six and eight respectively. Despite this simple to grasp distinction, last month, the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th district rejected an appeal on the grounds that, so far as they’re concerned, spiders are insects.
The unusual stance in the face of science came about following a disagreement between a couple in Alabama and an insurance company about an infestation of brown recluse spiders. Under their agreement, the insurance company was not responsible for compensating the couple for financial loss due to “birds, vermin, rodents or insects”. Spotting an obvious loophole, the couple refuted the decision making the fine and valid point that, as arachnids, brown recluses do not fit under any of these categories and should therefore be covered by their insurance. Clearly they'd played insect-arachnidy before.
But the couple, who were evidently more clued up on matters of entomology than the jurisdiction of the 11th Circuit, viz., Alabama, Florida, and Georgia didn’t just lose their initial lawsuit but also their appeal, demonstrating that, so far as the legal system is concerned, spiders are in fact insects.
Before you go rewriting the textbooks, the original court documents reveal how the classification argument came to fail. It reads that insurance companies must adhere to their policies “according to their ordinary meaning”, which essentially translates to, “what the average person would understand them to mean”. It doesn’t require a need for technical accuracy or specific jargon.
One argument they put forward is that the clause also excludes vermin, which according to the Merriam-Webster definition are “small, common, harmful or objectionable animals (as lice or fleas) that are difficult to control”. I personally don’t consider brown recluses to be harmful or objectionable, but they are undeniably small, common, and – not that I’ve tested this theory – presumably don’t obey basic commands.
The semantic straw clutching raged on from there, as the court went back to arguing that a spider could also be classed as an insect. They began citing endless dictionary definitions in which spiders are mentioned in the more vague, secondary definitions of the word "insect", claiming this clearly indicates that most people think the two are the same.
If new-ish books filled with words aren’t enough to convince you, the court then whipped out some literature from the 17th century to really bring it home as they point out that the first use of “insect” in the 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History also includes spiders. It’s as if words inscribed on paper can never be revised or amended. Fair enough, I can’t think of any instances in history where that’s tripped us up.
So, the couple lost both their lawsuit and appeal and I must say I’m hard pushed to agree with the court’s decision. Maybe I’m a nerd, maybe I'm pedantic, or maybe I just think if you’ve woken up to find your home’s been seized by an army of brown recluses that a little compensation would be nice. There’s been much debate surrounding brown recluses on the Internet, mostly in the meme format of “iS tHiS a BrOwN rEcLuSe?” next to a blurry image of just about anything, which I suppose supports the court’s decision not to waste time on speciation specifics. So I guess, in answer to the philosophical debate that underpins this entire saga: when is a spider an insect? When it’s a “brown recluse”.
[H/T: Scientist Sees Squirrel]