This week is Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” known in the halls of that network as “The Week That Gets us Paid,” and in my house as “The Week I Think About Getting Cable.” Since the suits at Discovery first experimented with airing a week of shark-centric programming in 1988, Shark Week has become a cultural phenomenon. What began as a humble exercise in edu-tainment now imperiously cruises the summer TV waters like the Megalodon of old, leaving the competition trembling in its wake.
Sharks are among the most easily avoided predators in nature, but they loom in our imaginations as objects of terror and awe. Very few of us ever encounter one in the wild. But when we do we are, as Ulysses Everett McGill might say, in a tight spot. A swimmer encountering a shark has no recourse to save himself. He is not on land, where he might outrun, outwit or outmaneuver a predator. Human traits that advantage him on land – upright gait, opposable thumbs, the ability to make and use tools – are useless in the water. He is at the mercy of the shark, as cold and unfeeling a force of nature as one can find.
Because sharks’ advantages coincide exactly with humans’ weaknesses, they check our capacity to conquer nature in a way that captivates and challenges us. It is therefore not surprising that nearly every civilization that has lived along the ocean has taken an interest in sharks. Native Hawaiians deified them. Herodotus’ Histories describes the shipwrecked fleet of Mardonius losing hundreds of men to them. Similar ancient shark folklore abounds throughout the world. But America is a young nation desiring to free itself from the shackles of history and defy ancient wisdom, and is therefore obliged to relive that history and relearn that wisdom in dramatic, sometimes embarrassing fashion. We accordingly dismissed all of that as so much backward mythology and superstition, embarking on a long and bloody route to our own uniquely modern relationship with sharks.
The primary feeling suffusing that relationship is fear, but following closely on it is fascination: a thirst for understanding that can explain the object of our fear to us and thus provide a measure of comfort. However, what knowledge we do have has been slow in coming and remains incomplete. What we have had is not knowledge but, in the words of the Austrian economist and philosopher F.A. Hayek, the pretense of knowledge – a pretense which has led us to tremendous errors in judgment that have endangered man and shark alike.
Jaws, the masterful 1975 film in which Steven Spielberg scared the pants off the entire nation with two music notes and a handful of underwater camera angles, is often credited with making Americans terrified of sharks. But with all due respect to Spielberg, whose work on that film and many others is without parallel, no horror story works without a preexisting fear to exploit. It is hard to imagine Jaws resonating six decades earlier, when academic consensus maintained that sharks were incapable of mortally wounding humans. In his book Twelve Days of Terror (spoiler alert), Joseph Fernicola surveyed statements from turn-of-the-century scientific leaders on sharks and the dangers they posed to humans and found near-universal agreement that there were none. A sampler: Henry Weed Fowler and Henry Skinner, who served, respectively, as ichthyologist and curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences early in the twentieth century, held that sharks’ jaws could not cut through a human leg. Frederic Lucas, director of the American Museum of Natural History, concurred, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1916, “it is beyond the strength of even the largest Carcharadon to sever the leg of an adult man.”
For those of you who are not caught up on the minutiae of fish taxonomy (how do you spend your lunch breaks?), Carcharadon refers to a genus of shark with only one extant species, Carcharadon carcharias. You probably know it by another name: the great white shark.
By Olga Ernst - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
It did not take long at all for the folly of Lucas’ proclamation to be exposed; between July 1 and July 12 of 1916, four people were killed, and another injured, in shark attacks along the Jersey Shore. The attacks sparked the first bona fide shark panic in American history, shocking the academic community and whipping the national media into a frenzy. Paranoid theories ran rampant: perhaps one of these normally-docile animals had gone rogue; perhaps it had acquired a now-insatiable taste for human flesh and it was only a matter of time before it killed again; perhaps other sharks had followed suit and the ocean was teeming with murderous, monstrous fish. Even when the public began to calm down as attacks stopped happening, there was no going back to a pre-1916 world of blissful ignorance. The shark attack, long thought to be an artifact of mythology and old wives’ tales, had asserted its reality in our brave new world.
To this day, details surrounding this massive concentration of fatal shark attacks – ordinarily, only one American is killed by a shark every two years – are elusive. No one quite knows why the spree along the Jersey shore occurred, how many or even which kind of sharks were involved (the two suspects are the great white and the bull shark). What is undeniable is that America’s image of sharks, what they were and represented, changed forever. Lucas himself issued a mea culpa that was published in the New York Times, in which he admitted that sharks were capable of harming humans, while still stressing that attacks were extremely unlikely to occur. Unfortunately, only the first part of this statement (which, taken in its totality, was largely correct) caught on with the public. Americans went from viewing sharks as harmless to seeing them as ruthless killers with endless appetites for human flesh.
This moment, nearly six decades before the release of Jaws, was what made the shark as fearsome a monster in the American imagination as any portrayed by Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. And as they did at the gates of those monsters, so too did a vengeful mob form along America’s coasts, with harpoons and nets standing in for the torches and pitchforks. With the public baying for the blood of the “Jersey Man-Eater,” state and local officials posted bounties for sharks. Flotillas of hunters answered the call to bring this oceangoing Jack the Ripper to justice, killing hundreds of sharks in a massive hunt that would unfortunately become a blueprint for decades to come. Elites were as taken by this wave of fear as the general public: the House of Representatives appropriated $5,000 (adjusting for inflation, approximately $120,000) to support shark hunting efforts. Then-President Woodrow Wilson kept himself apprised of the situation as well and was considering dispatching the Coast Guard to patrol the Jersey Shore before the attacks ceased.
Subsequent decades saw the repetition of this cycle time and again among local communities in response to shark attacks. Fishermen such as Frank Mundus, who is widely reported to be the inspiration for Captain Quint (portrayed by Robert Shaw) in Jaws, built legendary reputations as shark hunters among a public that idolized their courage. The release of Jaws in 1975 completed a feedback loop begun by the Jersey Shore attacks: the film, and the book by Peter Benchley which served as its basis, both took inspiration from the events of 1916 and seized on the fear of sharks they generated, then multiplied that fear in turn. Sponsored fishing tournaments in the 1980s offered prizes to fishermen who could bring in the most or biggest sharks. In Australia, government-sponsored shark culls along the coasts – often more informed by film narratives than biology – continue to this day. Together with increased demand for shark fin soup in newly prosperous East Asian countries, these efforts drove several shark species, including the great white, closer and closer to extinction.
Declines in shark populations portend extremely negative consequences for ocean ecosystems. As apex predators, sharks play a crucial role in regulating the populations of their prey. This in turn regulates the populations of those fishes’ prey, and so on. This prevents any one species from monopolizing limited resources (i.e. over-predation by a lower predatory fish or overconsumption of plant life). For an example of the way this works, picture a coral reef. The coral itself competes with algae for space in which to settle on the reef. It therefore depends on the presence of small herbivorous fish to consume algae, limiting their population. Those fish are preyed upon by larger predatory fish, who are in turn preyed upon by sharks. Left alone, this system regulates itself, maintaining a delicate balance of each population. But remove or reduce the population of the top predator, and all of a sudden the lower predatory fish have nothing limiting their population. They’re here to eat guppies and get eaten by sharks, and they’re all out of sharks. This means no herbivorous fish are left to consume algae, which can proceed to cover the entire reef and crowd out the coral on which every form of life in the ecosystem depends for its habitat. The intervention of an outsider can thus throw a formerly stable system into chaos. The consequences of this extend far beyond the system itself; in the case of coral reefs, which generate some $375 billion per year in economic value in over 100 countries from fishing, tourism and more, millions of human livelihoods can be turned upside down by this disruption.
Which brings me back to Hayek. By observing human choices and their consequences, economists often uncover insights that extend far beyond the realm of markets, and Hayek landed on a gem when he declared, in his 1988 book The Fatal Conceit, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Hayek was highlighting the inherent limitations of central planning; the pretense of knowledge that led the architects of socialist economies to generate unintended consequences they could never have foreseen, because the totality of forces and linkages (see Leonard E. Read’s classic essay I, Pencil for a great example of this) at work in the market was impossible for them to know.
Hayek contended that economic and social order in free societies arises not from deliberate planning but from the choices, conscious and unconscious, intellectual and visceral, of every person and entity in society. Complex and well-ordered systems can thus emerge free of compulsion and regulation. However, living happily with such an arrangement requires one to be comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty and risk. Given the fallibility of human institutions and behavior, that risk will occasionally realize itself in the form of societal disruption or setbacks. Central planning is then conceived in response as an alternative manner of organizing society with an eye toward control, predictability, and guarantee of salutary outcomes.
For Hayek, however, this only planted the seeds for further chaos and disruption, because it was and always would be impossible for planners to have the knowledge necessary to design a top-down replacement for a spontaneously-ordered market without creating disastrous unintended consequences. The inability of individual men to know what they did not know – often compounded by arrogance – would always lead to some slip-up, oversight, or miscalculation that made even the best-laid plans go awry. Commonly referred to as “the knowledge problem” this insight was, for Hayek, the Rosetta Stone of Communist failures in the twentieth century; the central reason why, in his view, top-down intervention in economic systems produced far greater problems than it could solve.
Recent history is replete with examples of this cycle playing out, ranging from the comical (see occupational licensing for hair braiding) to the tragic (see the Great Leap Forward). And while your mileage on the ideological implications Hayek drew from it may vary, the core sociological insight of the knowledge problem – that the information required for rational organization of complex systems is unevenly and chaotically dispersed across a wide range of individual actors and institutions and thus impossible for a single central authority to possess – is a truth very few would deny, and has been with us since long before Hayek articulated it in the economic context. Anyone who is properly educated in a particular academic or professional discipline knows a true education reveals to the student not the totality of his intellectual mastery but the vast wealth of knowledge which he has not yet attained. Demonstrating to men “how little they really know about what they imagine they can design” is the curious task not only of economics but also of history, political science, sociology, literature, engineering, physics, and – crucially, for those of you who clicked on an article about sharks only to be blindsided by a multi-page digression about economics and philosophy – biology and ecology.
The knowledge problem is at work in the shared history of man and shark in the modern age. The first “fatal conceit” was fatal for humans: a lack of knowledge that led the best scientific minds of the Progressive Era to deny or downplay the risks that came with participating in the complex system of life that is the ocean. When the historically unprecedented tragedy of the Jersey Shore attacks occurred and made it clear that those risks were all too real, there were two options. One could weigh the knowledge of that risk against the historical unlikelihood of it being a major threat to our continued participation in the marine ecosystem and take measured, small steps to guard against it; or one could demand radical action to control the marine environment and eradicate the risk entirely. Overwhelmed by fear and a need to feel in control of our surroundings, humanity opted for the latter for decades, embarking on a mission to reduce and control shark populations.
Our subsequent interventions had consequences we never foresaw because we again lacked important pieces of knowledge; first, that the Jersey shore attacks were a massive aberration and sharks, despite their capacity to attack and kill humans, remained extraordinarily unlikely to do so; and that reducing shark populations would have deleterious impacts on the ocean writ large. In other words, we lacked the requisite knowledge to rationally plan the system on which we attempted to impose order. By throwing complex systems of life, which took thousands of generations to evolve, into chaos, this second conceit is proving fatal for shark and man alike.
Risk is inevitable in every system we inhabit. In the ocean, it is simply embodied in more dramatic fashion, specifically in the toothy maw of a behemoth fish. Our encounters and continuing fascination with sharks remind us that it is beyond the capacity of humans to remove that risk from our lives. Moreover, our efforts to do so will only cause more problems for us and the life around us. We do not have the ability to deliberately plan our own economies; we certainly do not have the ability to plan nature. To a fearful man this is a disappointment, but to a wise one it is blessed instruction. Because it is not eliminating risk and uncertainty but embracing them, and continuing to thrive and do the things we love without being cowed by them, that truly make it a joy to be human.