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Feeding Frenzy

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“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation,” writes author Robert Heinlein in his novel Time Enough for Love. “Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime; the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and the execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”

That quote comes from the fictional character Lazarus Long, an immortal fellow who is able to gain vast amounts of wisdom over his very long span of experience. It is wisdom that just so happens to synch with the outlook of Heinlein himself, who was known for a fairly gruff and libertarian view of the world that seemed to create admirers and detractors in equal measure. I’m an admirer, and this quote is one I’ve come back to repeatedly over the course of my life, mainly when I see something that runs contrary to my conviction that people really aren’t as silly or as stupid as they so often appear.

As I write this, I’m on vacation on Cape Cod. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t be working on vacation, but I just started this job and I’m nervous about being away for a whole week. I’ll do better at relaxing next year.) If you’ve been following the news lately, you’d know that there have been great white shark sightings off the Cape in recent weeks. The “greaties” have been there all along, but as the local seal colonies have grown in size and as the seals themselves have moved closer to shore, so too have the sharks.

Right now, the entire town of Chatham, Mass. is a mecca for clueless tourists who show up at the harbor expecting sharks to jump out of the water for them. People are calling local charter companies looking for shark tours, only to find there are none. They are going on seal-watching tours, expecting to see some kind of mass slaughter of pinnipeds out in the water. The truth is, there are only about a dozen great whites patrolling the southern Cape right now, and yeah, they’re making a meal out of seals, and yeah, if you go swimming on the ocean side of the Cape, you’re taking your chances. Double that if you’re a surfer: your profile from below looks like a seal, and a great white can’t tell the difference until it’s bitten you.

Now, the great white risk is also way overblown at the moment. But at the same time, the risk is real, and if you’re smart, you just go swimming elsewhere. It’s not like you’re hurting for options up here. So when I hear other tourists looking at the seals in Chatham harbor say things like, “Ooh, I can’t wait for a great white to come in and eat one of those things. You want to go hit the beach after?” I begin to fear for my species’ ability to propagate itself. But then I realize no, this is just the species’ way of weeding out the stupid ones. The ones about to apply nature’s capital punishment upon themselves, as Heinlein might say.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just grumpy because I’m writing editorials on vacation and because I come up here for some peace and quiet and there are a lot of people on the Cape this week seemingly hell-bent on ignoring the natural beauty of this place.

But as I look at the ocean and see solo surfers going out at night, and people swimming next to shark advisory signs, I can’t help but feel for the life underwriters out there who know that whatever risk management they’ve done for their book of business, there’s just no proper defense for the power of people’s willingness to put themselves in harms’ way because they’re too dumb not to. If you look at it that way, I guess the sharks are only trying to do the rest of us a favor.


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