JOHN CHUCKMAN COMMENT: WHY THE STARFISH PARABLE MAKES NO SENSE   Leave a comment

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOHN CHUCKMAN

COMMENT WRITTEN IN RESPONSE TO A BROADCAST ON RADIO

The parable incorrectly conflates two perspectives on the notion of someone’s throwing washed-up starfish back into the sea.

The first perspective is personal, the one doing the throwing.

The second perspective is universal, the person correctly advising that starfish are always being washed ashore all over the world.

The first person is responding to personal feelings and likely could not do otherwise than he or she is doing. But we well know that this person could spend an entire vacation, day and night, throwing starfish back into the sea: he or she might feel good doing so, but in fact would make no difference at all to the total population of starfish.

The second person is giving a universal perspective, or, to put it more scientifically, we may say the statistical truth about the world’s population of starfish. We know this is so because science has demonstrated in species after species – turtles, fish, birds, or insects – that nature produces huge numbers precisely so that at least some portion will survive. It is absolutely guaranteed that many or most individuals in such populations will not survive, the rate of survival at any given time depending on vicissitudes of climate and other factors.

Still, the individual with humanitarian instincts will want to throw the starfish back, but we should note that this only serves to satisfy his or her emotions: it changes nothing.

The second perspective is the factual one: because we are dealing with very large numbers, tiny additions or subtractions are the equivalent of growing or losing a few hairs on your head.

Such a parable is a poor one for any intellectual or educational institution to employ. If you check it briefly on the Internet, you’ll see the kind of people cited are those who read books like Jonathon Living Seagull or The Prophet.

The attitude of the person throwing back the starfish is that shared by the religious zealot or evangelist, demonstrating a drive to convert the whole world’s population – a feat that has never happened and indeed is quite impossible with many millions being born and dying every year.

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