The Crab Fisherman

by dbdevilliers

Human behavior is a hell of an interesting thing—particularly in the way that no matter how far we develop and distance ourselves from the wild creatures which lack the wheel and the written word and the industrial war machine, our own behavior often mirrors that of those exact organisms.

Perhaps there exist certain universal truths behind the instinctive actions of all living things, or perhaps behavior simply takes an incomprehensibly long time to adapt over generations to changing circumstances. I am by no means an expert in the fields of psychology or biology, so I will not attempt to conjecture a thorough analysis of the forces which incite such parallels in behavior between different species.

Rather, I will simply describe a certain deceptively superficial observation that I’ll remember until my dying day.

I once read a short little anecdote someplace that has really stuck with me as I’ve grown older—as I’ve begun to understand its message in practice. I don’t remember exactly the wording or the structure of the story as it’s been years since I’ve read the original (which, if I remember correctly, was only maybe a paragraph in length; I’ve opted to expand upon the original here for the sake of effect, as well as to illustrate my interpretation of its message.) Despite the corrosive effect of time upon memory, my mind often wanders back to the story’s premise and I can clearly recall the powerful point which it proved:

A crab fisherman, in order to fish for crabs, drops a small cage tied to the end of a rope over the side of a dock and into the saltwater below. The cage has small doors that are held shut by the tension of the rope when pulled taut, but when the cage settles at the bottom of the bay, the rope slackens and the doors open downward. Inside that cage is another cage, significantly smaller than the first, firmly locked via some mechanism of sufficient complexity that the average crab can’t fathom its workings, and thus is rendered incapable of springing it open.. 

Now this particular intellectual shortcoming of the crab is quite beneficial to the crab fisherman at the other end of the rope, because within the small cage is an equally small chunk of meat. After settling at the bottom of the bay, water flows through the cage and around the meat, spreading its oils and whatnot throughout the surrounding area. This piques the attention of the local crab population, which subsequently follows the meat oil trail right into the cage where, thanks to the crab’s cantankerous personality, they squabble and argue amongst themselves over who deserves to claim the hunk of meat that they’re all anatomically incapable of removing from the little cage anyway.

Before the crabs get a chance to form intellectual discussion groups in which they question the philosophical merits of bickering with each other inside of a trap over a small hunk of rotten meat that none of them can even physically access, the crab fisherman up top begins hoisting the cage skyward. The ropes that close the doors tighten and the doors close and the cage, now filled to the brim with oversized and ill-tempered aquatic insects, rises up from the depths and into the air before coming to rest briefly on the surface of the dock.

However, the crabs, being crabs, pay no mind to the change in scenery nor to the fact that their dreary fates have just been effectively sealed; rather, they elect to continue squabbling over the hunk of meat that none of them could ever possibly get to anyway, and they keep on doing just that as the crab fisherman dumps the contents of the trap into a steel bucket before lowering it back down into the water to catch more crabs.

And now here comes the real kicker. Every once in a while, a more perceptive crab disregards the perpetual brawling of his compatriots and attempts to scale the side of the bucket, seeking to drop down onto the deck of the dock in a desperate dash to escape certain doom. Typically, when a crab embarks upon this great crusade back to the bay, he simply is simply unable to overcome the wall of the bucket. He then promptly slides right back down into the ornery arthropod mass, where a friend welcomes him with a congenial claw to the face.

Every once in a while, though, a crab—either by sheer luck or by sheer tenacity or by whatever else impels one to attempt the impossible—reaches the rim of the bucket and prepares to drop to the deck and dash back to the depths. However, an extraordinary event happens every single time, negating the crab’s bid for escape:

The other crabs drag him back down to certain death right with them.

Isn’t that just something else? These creatures would sooner drag down one who endeavors to rise above them, to survive, than abandon their futile fighting and attempt to rise up themselves. I reacted, at first, with a morbid sort of fascination. I was thoroughly intrigued. However, that initial intrigue gave way to a sickening sense of dread as a new revelation began to dawn on me:

Human beings behave in precisely the same manner.