An eagle eye

If you’ve an eagle eye, you’ll have noticed that my 101st and last Fable, ‘The King of Stingers’, is unique in not being original. It tells the tale of a scorpion who, given a lift across a stream by a frog, can’t resist stinging it and thereby killing them both. “I’m sorry. It’s what I do best”, he explains, before disappearing under the waters. This fable of ‘The Scorpion & The Frog’, which is not one of Aesop’s but has its roots in the mid-20th century, was intended by its unknown author to communicate the moral that people just can’t change. I first heard it from a man I worked with who, though good at his job, couldn’t help occasionally being incredibly offensive, just to see whether he could get away with it. When I explained that he was upsetting clients and colleagues alike, he related the fable to me and told me that he was like the scorpion. “It’s just the way I am”, he announced proudly, as though that somehow made it all right.

The big difference with my Fable is that the whole scene is watched by an eagle who accurately predicts beforehand what’s coming next. Like Aristotle, he’s taken pains to study the behaviour of other animals, including the scorpion, and is now happy to hypothesise what will happen in certain circumstances. In this case, he’s observed that the scorpion, contrary to its own belief, actually uses its stinger automatically when it is afraid. It knows this because it has seen the scorpion preferring to use its claws whenever it wants to fight, and only deploying the stinger in extremis. How it will react to the danger of drowning in the treacherous stream is all too predictable.

The scientific reference for this poem is an imaginative experiment conducted in 1974 by Dutton and Aron, who were testing the theory of ‘Misattribution of Arousal’: the notion that, in an anxious state, we experience visceral emotions that our brain wrongly assumes are caused not by fear but something more under our control. In the experiment, a number of young men were interviewed immediately after crossing a rickety bridge, and later asked how they rated the sexual attractiveness of the female interviewer. They rated her significantly more highly than did a comparable group who’d been made to cross a solid bridge. The obvious inference is that the perilous crossing had raised their heart rate, and their brain had interpreted this as a romantic reaction to the woman. It’s one of the many ways that Captain Forebrain kids us that it is in command of the ship, whereas in fact it is the crew below decks who are in effective control.

The picture that ends the Fable, and therefore the book, depicts the eagle himself. If you hadn’t guessed, he is in fact my avian metaphor for a scientist, habitually using a process of observation, hypothesising and experimentation to get to the truth, whatever the layman might prefer to believe.  Significantly, he’s looking over his shoulder at you, the reader, to check that you’re paying attention. This was in fact the whole point of including a 101st Fable that takes us beyond a tidy round hundred. It’s a standout Fable that is saying, “Fables are all very well, but they can be held as nothing more than homilies if there’s no scientific evidence attached. Now, have you got that?”… which sums up the raison d’être of ‘Old Bunyard’s Philosophick Fables’ in a nutshell.

And what of the man who likened himself to the scorpion? He ended up running a sandwich shop.

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