Saturday, October 5, 2013

Nature vs. Nurture: An Old Fable

Here is something a little different for today’s post.  This is my retelling of an old fable I heard many years ago.  There are several versions of it.  I believe the origin of this one is Native American, but there are similar tales in other cultures.  The animals involved may vary; although the scorpion is a constant, its partner may be a frog, tortoise, or hare.  The gist of it is fairly uniform across cultures because it expresses what is probably an archetypal understanding of the world.

The Rabbit and The Scorpion

Two creatures crossed the desert until they came to a wide river.  One was a rabbit and the other was a scorpion.  Both wanted to cross the river, because on the other side there was ample food and excellent places for each to make a home.  The scorpion asked the rabbit, “Will you give me a ride across the water?  You are a much better swimmer than me.  I weigh very little and can sit lightly on your back as you swim.”

But the rabbit was leery.  “If I let you climb on my back, you will sting me and I will die.”

The scorpion said, “I promise not to sting you.  For I want to get to the other side, just as you do.  Maybe I can return the favor when we get there.”

“Well, as long as you promise,” said the rabbit.

“I promise,” said the scorpion.  The scorpion then clambered up on top of the rabbit, and together they set off across the river.  The water was very deep and turbulent, but the rabbit was a strong and reliable swimmer, and made good progress toward the other shore.  From his perch on top of the rabbit’s shoulders, the scorpion from time to time would call out directions if the rabbit had been pushed off course by the river’s current.  Thus they worked together to accomplish their mutual goal.

But when they had reached the middle of the stream, the scorpion suddenly lifted his tail and stung the rabbit long and hard, just behind his head.  The rabbit screamed in shock and pain, and as the poison began to take the light from his eyes he said:  “You are a fool!  Now we will both perish!”

And the scorpion said, “I was a fool to promise you what I promised.  You were a fool to believe me. For I am a scorpion and it is my habit to sting with my terrible venom.  I entered this world as a scorpion, and that is how I will leave it.”  And with that, both quickly slipped beneath the water, with barely a struggle, and were soon swept downstream.


Fans of Lord Dunsany’s allegorical short stories may appreciate the mix of horror and irony.  The moral of the tale comes squarely down on the side of nature in the age old ‘nature versus nurture’ controversy—so critical to current beliefs about human nature and social policy.

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