The Scorpion and The Frog
Posted by Remo Giuffré on
Are Your Behaviours Innately Ordained?
The Scorpion and the Frog is a fable about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stings the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would also drown. The frog agrees and begins to carry the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: "I am sorry, but I couldn't resist the urge. It's in my nature."
The earliest known appearance of this fable is in the 1933 Russian novel, The German Quarter by Lev Nitoburg. The fable also appears in the 1944 novel, The Hunter of the Pamirs, and this is the earliest known appearance of the fable in English.
In the English-speaking world, the fable was made famous by the 1955 film Mr. Arkadin. It is recounted in a soliloquy by the movie's villain, played by Orson Welles. Welles believed that frankness gave the scorpion a certain charm and tragic dignity, attributing a similar strength of character to Arkadin. Although Arkadin is evil (sex trafficking murderer), he is also courageous and passionate. Welles admired that.
There’s also a Persian fable dating back to the 1500s that has a turtle in place of the frog. In the Scorpion and the Turtle, the turtle survives the scorpion's sting thanks to its protective shell. Nonetheless, the turtle is baffled by the scorpion's behaviour because they are old friends and the scorpion must have known that its stinger would not pierce the shell. The scorpion responds that it acted neither out of malice nor ingratitude, but merely an irresistible and indiscriminate urge to sting. The turtle then delivers the following reflection: "Truly have the sages said that to cherish a base character is to give one's honour to the wind, and to involve one's own self in embarrassment." Ouch!
There’s a lesson here … we think; but with opposing points of view.
In a 2018 Medium post entitled "The Scorpion and the Frog: Relationships, Interactions and Expectations” Steven McCall lays the blame with the frog when he says: "Scorpions will do scorpion shit. We really can’t be mad at a scorpion for acting like a scorpion. Instead, it’s on us to do a better job of controlling who we let into our lives and who we spend our time and energy on. It’s our job to pay more attention.”
But not everyone agrees with the message. In a 2013 article in The Intellectual Standard entitled "The Scorpion And The Frog: A False Narrative Of Human Nature" Karen Silverman and Jaret Kanarek object to the implication that people are born with baked in behaviours and reckon that: "Perhaps the true moral of this tale is that unlike the scorpion, man is not like the rest of the animal kingdom. He is the rational animal and has free will. The excuse, "It's in my nature, I couldn't help it" is not a valid one. It is time to drop the notion of innately ordained behaviour and instead make rational choices based on the facts of reality. We can and do choose, and we are responsible for our actions.”
What do you think?
"The Scorpion And The Frog: A False Narrative Of Human Nature" by Karen Silverman and Jaret Kanarek
1. The Scorpion and The Frog, Illustration: Kurzon
2. Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin | Mr. Arkadin, 1955
3. Scorpion & Tortoise Fable Illustration | Walters Art Museum Ms. W.599, fol.40b
4. Scorpion and Frog Tattoo by Mike Stout at The Blackhouse Club, Brighton
5. Scorpion & Frog as Internet Meme. The format was popularised across a range of sites and platforms in 2021.
6. He can't help himself ...
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I spent about a decade on the problem of free will, time well spent IMHO. It’s a topic that has been actively discussed since at least the ancient Greeks, and Rumi left us a number of pithy observations about it as well.
FWIW, the modern consensus — which I’m not on board with — is that the very strong sense of being able to choose different options at any given time is untenable, but that we should believe in free will anyway.
My chronic entrepreneurship is the thing that makes me a scorpion.