Since we learned about what right whales and their baleen’d cousins eat in the last chapter, let’s learn about the diet of one Moby Dick and his kin.
Often have I heard philosophical or poetic reveries based around the idea that whales, the largest creatures on earth, subsist entirely by eating the smallest, microscopic plankton. Well, turns out that only applies to some whales, not all of them. While the peaceful, calm, and pleasant right whales are perfectly happy to ply the meadows of the sea for their brit, the sperm whale desires something more exciting. They want a food that is gonna fight back.
SUMMARY: The Pequod passes through the watery fields of brit, to the northeast, towards the island of Java. One day, Daggoo is up on the mainmasthead and spots something white on the horizon. At first he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing, but it pops into view again, and he calls out that he has spotted the white whale!
Instantly, ever hand on the ship is looking in the direction he indicated, hoping to confirm the spotting, most of all Ahab. Seeing a while mass rise out of the water, he instantly orders the boats lowered, and all four are soon cruising across the water. They arrive, and find not Moby Dick, not a whale at all, but a strange mass of tentacles rising and lowering in the water, radiating out of a central point, with no obvious face or head.
It is a giant squid, extremely rare but known to whalers as the prey of sperm whales. Their beaks are often found in whale stomachs, and the scars of their tentacles often adorn the heads of their hunters. They normally live in the deepest depths of the oceans, where sperm whales dive to hunt them. These creatures are the source of legends of the kraken, and many other sea monsters from all around the world. The crew goes back to the Pequod, disappointed, and not sure how to interpret such an extraordinary omen.
What struck me, primarily, about this chapter is that the information Ishmael gives us about the giant squid is basically everything we know about them to this very day. Oh, sure, scientists have done some more in-depth analyses on their corpses, but as far as behavior goes, this is 100% up to date.
I remember when the first photos of a live giant squid were captured, back in 2002. Video followed a few years later, finally putting to rest some old misconceptions about these strange creatures. It was believed that they merely passively floated through the water, with their tentacles outstretched, grabbing hold of any prey that happened to touch them. But the first images showed a giant squid aggressively attacking a baited line and even getting caught on it for a while.
Modern sightings of giant squid are still vanishingly rare. The idea that a whaling ship would spot one on the surface seems absurd, but the behavior of the squid actually matches current hypotheses of their hunting behavior, bobbing up and down in the water, hoping to spot some prey. Indeed, the fact that whalers were constantly cruising the known feeding grounds of sperm whales means they would have to run into the whales’ food at some point or another.
It follows, naturally, that they would also be the most knowledgeable about these odd beasts, given that they are the prey of their prey. To this day, nobody has ever witnessed an actual battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid, but we know they must happen, by the same evidence Ishmael cites: beaks in whale stomachs, and tentacle scars.
On the one hand, it shows just how elusive the giant squid truly is, that our knowledge of them has not grown much larger in the past hundred and seventy-odd years. On the other, it shows the ways that formalized scientific knowledge still lags behind folk knowledge in many ways. This book was written very early on in the scientific revolution, relatively speaking to where we are now. There was a period of transition where things that were known had to go through a process to become scientific knowledge. No longer could anything be assumed, nothing could be taken by assurance, you had to actually go out and document and test and retest everything that people thought they knew.
Thus, many old stories were regarded as pure fables, either because of the relative reputability (read: social status) of their source, or because they just sounded ridiculous. It reminds me of the story of how native americans discovered how to tap maple trees for syrup. European colonists asked them, and they said that squirrels showed them how to do it. What an obvious myth! Clearly, they had simply failed to record their own history. But, a couple of years ago, scientists spotted squirrels biting holes into maple trees, and drinking the sap that ran out of them.
It’s easy to lose track of just how much the scientific revolution has shaped the way that we view the world. It solidifies truth and falsehood into things that can be either completely explained and tested thoroughly, and just outright lies, with nothing in-between. Which then, of course, aligns with the colonialist project of dividing the world into savages and civilization, people who know the True Things, and those who are still stumbling around in the dark.
I hope I don’t have to tell you that people who are way too into the idea of science are just as insufferable as the most committed evangelist. It breeds a certain kind of arrogance, a self righteous belief that you have all the answers, and that you have some sort of duty to be a joyless scold to everyone who steps out of line with your worldview.
To be clear, I have no problem at all with most scientists or the scientific method itself, it’s given us many wonderful things, and is a great model of knowledge. The problem, to my mind, is that it creates a model for knowledge that is easily abused to give the appearance of knowledge to any idea you can come up with. Look at scientific racism, which is still being touted by the most committed of horrific creeps, and is in the process of being reinvented by facial recognition software.
There are all kinds of problems involved with the people who do science, all sorts of biases that seep in, even just towards wanting to succeed rather than fail. Much like economics, the scientific method would work great if everyone involved was a perfectly rational robot, and not a human being. If anything, the problem is that, in abstract, the methods looks too sounds, they seem foolproof, and the cracks end up being very hidden.
Things like fudging the numbers to show a larger effect from studies than is really viable. Things not really being tested by peers, but just accepted because they sound good. People not reporting all of their failed tests and hypotheses, but only the ones where they get a miraculous effect out of nowhere, the flukes, which are then passed off as evidence of some deep, complicated truth. Also a lot of kerfuffle around something called a p-value which I don’t really understand.
At the end of the day, Ishmael and co. knew everything they needed to about giant squids: sperm whales at them, and you should steer clear of them. Those tentacles could tear up the incredibly tough skin of sperm whales, imagine what they could do to a wooden boat! Also, they taste awful, because giant squid bodies are laced with ammonium chloride to control their buoyancy.
I tend to think of science in terms of finding knowledge that works. You figure out the part of the plant that is actually causing the physiological effect in humans, you isolate it, bam, you’ve got a medication, not just traditional medicine. It’s about the process of formalizing the old magic of the world, taking these mysteries and putting them into their proper context. That’s why it always seems silly to me when there’s some sort of dichotomy between “science” and “magic” in some sort of fantasy setting. They’re the same thing! Figuring out cause and effect, and applying it to solve problems!
There is not some sort of mystical “science force” that makes things boring. It is simply a way of understanding the world, which is something people have always strived for.
Well, that went in a different direction than the last one. I feel like I always end up either going down either the road of “end capitalism now” or “everything is complicated”, if I write long enough.
Enjoy the squid pics.
Until next time, shipmates!
2 thoughts on “Chapter 59: Squid”
Fun fact about me! I find giant squid legitimately terrifying. I have a compulsive need to watch every bit of footage that comes out, and it sends shudders through me and I am utterly horrified. It’s my one big completely irrational fear, since there is a near zero percent chance I would ever encounter one in my life. But seeing them in the deep black dark of the ocean, with their disconcertingly massive eyes, yeah it freaks me out.
I have the same reaction as Ishmael and the boys – look what it can do to a sperm whale! Stay the fuck away from it!!
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They have CHITINOUS BLADES on their suction cups! I honestly cannot call that a completely irrational fear.