On Facebook a while back, I noticed a post with an image of a fish under the caption, “Is this fish evil?” What with the way FB stuff rapidly disappears down the plughole timeline to the past I couldn’t find that post again (where’s Dr Who when you really need him?), but this is that image (and thank you, Mr Google):
It’s a deep-sea viperfish, one of a gallery of rather alarming-looking creatures included in a post at Deep Sea News. The image, & FB post, caught my attention because of the use of ‘evil’ alongside the word ‘fish’. After all, the viperfish, like anglerfish & the truly alarming-looking stoplight loosejaw, are just fish, doing what fish gotta do. So why do people tend to characterise these animals as evil? After all, as the writer at Deep Sea News points out, they pose no threat to us, for all their Halloween appearance.
Part of it seems to be the dark colour and angular shape (Darth Vader, anyone?): both appear to trigger a fear response in humans. This is understandable enough for things like dangerous spiders, but deep-sea fish that we’ll never meet. Is there some sort of hardwired response to a particular set of characteristics that screams ‘danger! (danger, Will Robinson!) when we see them?
I suspect this is partially the case, but that there’s also an element of learning involved. Back in the days when I was working at Massey, I was privileged to be able to take a couple of Mahoenui giant weta out on trips to schools. The children’s responses were fascinating. Children from kindergartens, & early primary school, were absolutely fascinated – please could they have the weta sitting on them? They crowded in, got close & personal (& were really really careful to be slow & gentle around the animals). But secondary students were more likely to have an ‘eeewwww’ response. As did many of the kindy parents, who were far more likely to go ‘oh yuck’ rather than ‘ooh that’s wonderful’. Learning? Yes, I think so.
Also, there is surely more to the initial caption than this. What’s the difference between simple danger, & the suite of traits that humans label ‘evil’? After all, we recognise the danger in a lion or tiger (or bear), but you don’t often see them with the ‘evil’ label attached.