Sunday, April 29, 2012


Moby Dick is usually regarded as a novel of deep symbolism. No doubt this accounts for much of its literary appeal. But it is built on a practical observation. Herman Melville, through his experiences on whaling ships, recognized that a harpooned whale essentially kills itself. By running away, the whale dragged a boat-load of sailors for several miles until the whale was exhausted, and this eventually allowed the harpooner to close in and finish it off. A whale is much bigger and stronger than its pursuers; if it fought them head-to-head in the water it would win. But whales are not belligerent animals, and they are frightened, and this is what drags them to their death.

Moby Dick is a thought-experiment. Melville imagines what it would be like if a whale were as intelligent as a human. Instead of running away it would turn and fight. Moby Dick, the white whale, is scarred with harpoons still tangled on his back; these are wounds or trophies from previous encounters with humans, but he always turned and wrecked the harpooners’ boats. As literary critics have generally recognized, he is white to indicate he is nearly human. But no one in the novel explicitly recognizes wherein his humanness lies-- that he recognizes the tactic humans rely on to kill whales. The limits of humans’ perceptiveness of animals come out in their seeing Moby Dick only as supernatural or diabolical (and in the case of the critics, as symbolic). Moby Dick is not necessarily malevolent, but he is intelligent enough to see that running away will kill him, and that his only chance is to turn and counter-attack.

In this respect, Moby Dick also illustrates a main principle of human-on-human conflict. Winning a fight generally begins with establishing emotional dominance; and most of the physical damage occurs after one side emotionally dominates the other (Collins, 2008, Violence: A Macro-Sociological Theory).

Ernest Hemingway gives a parallel but much more explicit analysis of bullfighting (1932, Death in the Afternoon). A mature fighting bull is much bigger, stronger, and faster than the humans who try to kill him in the bull ring. The bull weighs 800 to 1000 pounds, runs faster than humans for short distances, and has horns that are sharp and penetrating as the swords and lances bullfighters use against him. The only way humans can kill a bull (without resorting to guns or poisons, that is) is wear him out. The team of bullfighters lure the bull one way and another by waving bright colored capes and cloths on sticks at him, getting the bull to chase the human but getting out of the way of his horns (if the bullfighters are skilled and lucky) while the bull follows the lure of the cloth. Near the beginning of the fight the humans also stab the bull in the shoulders with lances and mini-harpoons so that the bull will spend the rest of the fight goaded into anger, and indeed looking a little like Moby Dick; also this is done to tire the bull from carrying his head high where he can use his horns to stab a human in the chest. The bullfighter’s main technique for wearing down the bull, however, is the fancy spins and side-steps with the cape, which not only cause the bull to miss the man-- and make the audience cheer-- but make the bull turn abruptly in his tracks. This is a way of using the bull’s weight and speed against himself; the bull cannot turn in a radius less than the length of his own body, and if he tries, he twists his spine and eventually reaches a point where he can barely charge, and cannot keep his head up where he can kill the man with his horns. At this point, the matador lures the bull’s head downwards with the bright red cloth in one hand, while he reaches in over the horns with a sword and kills him through a spot in the back of his neck.

Hemingway explicitly mentions that the bullfighters’ technique is like that of a big-game fisherman, tiring a big fish by letting it run on a rod until it is so exhausted that it can be hauled out of the water to die. He doesn’t mention Moby Dick, and presumably no fish have been intelligent enough to use Moby Dick’s tactic against the fisherman. But bulls appear to be good learners. In fact, Hemingway states, the cardinal rule of the modern bullfight is that the bull should never have fought a human before it enters the bullring. It has never seen the inside of a bullring before, nor a crowd, nor the bright-colored capes nor the bullfighters and their weapons. It follows the lure of the bright-colored cloths and misses the humans it aims at with its horns. It tires itself out chasing and dies when it is worn out.

For bullfighting, this is more than a thought-experiment, as Hemingway describes occasions where experienced bulls fight humans again and again. The first-rate bullrings in the big cities use only new, inexperienced bulls, but bullfights in smaller towns, and especially those where amateurs fight, use cheaper bulls-- used bulls. Like used cars, the principle is buyer beware, since used bulls are experienced bulls, and they have learned the tricks humans are up to [pp. 19-21, 94, 104, 111-114]. Hemingway mentions a bull that killed sixteen men and wounded another sixty; no humans were ever skilled enough to kill it in the ring, and it was eventually disposed of in a meat slaughter-house. Experienced bulls soon recognize that they are only being lured by the bright cape; they will stand still and refuse to charge, then pick out one particular human in the throng and chase him down, refusing to be distracted by the others, until the bull has caught his victim and tossed and gored him as many times as he can. The bull who has fought before no longer charges straight at the bright cloth, but chops sideways and cuts with his horns looking for the man behind it. Hemingway comments that even inexperienced bulls can learn during the course of a 15-minute bullfight, so that if they are not sufficiently worn down by the bullfighters’ tactics the bull will become increasingly dangerous and able to kill the man before he kills him. The most intelligent bulls are the most dangerous, and a bull that has successfully gored a man gains confidence and aims to gore him again.

There is another way in which bulls learn their fighting skills, although this part has nothing to do with humans. Bulls out on the range fight with each other, head to head; using their horns like fencers, blocking and parrying; if one bull gets through and gores the other, he may not let it get up but keeps it off balance and gores it again until it is dead. Once getting the momentum, the dominance of energy and psychology, the victorious animal may push his advantage to the death. If two sparring bulls develop their skills at the same rate, their fights end in stalemates, like skilled boxers who block all the dangerous blows and wind down in respectful equality. But a bullfight with humans is designed to end in death on one side or the other; and if a bull is able to get through the human’s tricks of distracting his attention with bright colored cloths, he has the skilled moves with his horns that he learned against other bulls. Bulls who are only two or three years old are not very dangerous yet, and novice bullfighters can use them to practice their own skills on; but five-year-old bulls have learned too much and only the best bullfighters are supposed to fight them (and vice versa).

Hemingway comments that a bullfight is not designed to be a fair fight or a sport, but a spectacle to show off certain human skills and generate emotions from the apparent risk of human death. Hemingway was a meticulous observer and did not take other people’s word for anything, but checked out the details himself. (In this case, he saw 1500 bullfights.) He was one of the great sociologists of micro-interaction, 30 years before Goffman and 50 years before we started examining human-on-human interactions in detail with audio recordings and now photos and videos. Not many sociologists have studied human-animal interaction (although recently an increasing number; see especially the works of Colin Jerolmack on pigeons). My chief caveat is about claiming that human-animal confrontations-- i.e. violence-threatening confrontations-- are the same as human-on-human confrontations. Humans confronting each other come up against a wall of confrontational tension/fear (ct/f), a tension arising from the hard-wiring in humans that makes us especially susceptible to rituals of mutual solidarity, Interaction Rituals in the specifically sociological sense. (This is very different from the way ‘ritual’ has been used by animal ethologists where it means genetically determined gestures of dominance and submission; see Collins, Violence, pp. 25-29). Successful instances of human violence come from getting around the barrier of ct/f, sometimes by chance, but also by techniques that persons skilled in violence learn to use.

The kinds of violence that Hemingway describes in the case of bullfights come close to the claim that both humans and animals can lose fights by fear, and by the dominant side taking advantage of the other side’s fear; (elsewhere Hemingway makes somewhat similar arguments in the case of big-game hunting: see especially The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber). Apropos of bulls, Hemingway also claims that some animals and humans are just inherently braver than others (how would we prove this?); and that they get killed not out of being emotionally dominated but out of stupid moves that they make out of bravery and that get taken advantage of by the other side’s conscious anticipation and trickery (which is probably true). Thus the skilled human bullfighter finds it easier to fight a brave bull than a less aggressive but more intelligent, strategic bull. With big-game fish like marlins, the equivalent of bravery seems to be the energetic drive that makes them run and pull to their deaths. With whales, the animals seem easily put into a state of fear and avoidance; and for a whale to act like Moby Dick would take an unrealistically human quality of intelligence that tells him the best strategy is not to run but to use his superior strength in a counter-attack.

The comparison makes it puzzling why whales, which are regarded as closer to humans in their intelligence, are not as good at learning fighting skills (and seeing through the techniques that humans use on them) as bulls, of a species never regarded as very intelligent. The entire question suggests that we are dealing with multiple dimensions, and that neither a biological generalization across all species, nor a gradation of nonhuman-to-human intelligence, will get at the key sources of variation. In my own work on the micro-sociology of human violence, I have avoided generalizing beyond humans, because I have not systematically looked at the primary data on infra-human animal interactions; and judging from my own experience with what other researchers have said about human violence, I don’t trust many researchers to make a well-justified theory out of what first-hand observations actually show.

With Hemingway on bulls, and Melville on whales, we have a couple of careful observers who came to their own conclusions. I’m not prepared to go much further than this, but one point seems justified: skills at violence are learned, certainly by humans, and apparently by animals where we can carefully observe them in various situations. The main aspect of violent skill is a social skill: being able to pick out a favorable opponent, recognize the opponent’s weakness-- above all the moment of emotional weakness-- and in more highly skilled forms, to recognize the tactics the opponent is using and make allowance for them. Fighting bulls, who otherwise don’t seem very intelligent, are good at this, just as humans who fight bulls have collectively evolved a set of techniques for fighting animals who also have such capacities. Perhaps this is an unusual case in humans-vs-animals conflict. But it illustrates well the character of human-vs-human conflict in our own history.


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