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The Law of Fish and Humans -- Writer's Poke #367

Neon Tetras are tiny little fish, but they add a colorful element to a freshwater tank.

We had a 75 gallon bow-front tank with around forty fish. Neon Tetras are cheap, and so we decided to add a dozen. This group of new inductees liked to keep together; all twelve collectively were about the size of one of our Angelfish, of which we had six.

At the fish store, fish are color-coded to let buyers know which fish get along well with each other. A green sticker means that “fish play well with others,” and all of the fish in our tank were of the green-sticker variety. So it was a great surprise to wake up the following morning to discover that six of the newly-added Neons had vanished.

Where had they gone? Did they somehow escape the tank, making their way for the Savannah River – ala the gang of highly intelligent escape artists in Finding Nemo? We scratched our heads about it, but assumed that they must just be very good at hiding.

The next day, however, we turned on the tank light only to observe that all of the Neons were gone. Could the Angelfish have eaten the Neons? This was the only logical conclusion. The Neons had served as tasty treats for their somewhat ironically named tank-mates.

It reminds me of what Joseph Campbell writes about the condition of life: “killing is the precondition of all living whatsoever.” All living things must take the life of something else in order to continue living. Life snacks on death. For big fish, it’s smaller fish. For humans, it’s fish sticks. But humans are a little bit different in that they also snack on the living.

Think about this commonly-used human expression: “I made a killing.” When people say this, they aren’t speaking literally, of course. They are speaking about making a lot of money. But metaphorically or literally, the basic concept is the same. Earth is the fish tank for humanity, and it contains Angels and Neons, just to specify two types. And again, for the record, don’t let the name fool you. If an Angel needs to eat you to survive, it will. And if that Angel is human, assume that it will find a way to brag about it.

Are humans, in any meaningful sense, better than fish?

“You can make a killing but not a living.” – Robert Anderson


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