Ahab’s Historicism: Changing Whale Behavior in History


The History Bandits

“Vengeance on a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct? Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous”

So cried the fictional Mr. Starbuck, first mate of the Pequod, in Herman Melville’s whaling epic, Moby Dick. Starbuck, a representation of rational, modern thinking in Melville’s tale, dismissed his eccentric captain’s obsession with capturing the white whale as impractical, even sinful, because he saw it as equating personality and reason with what he considered a “dumb brute”—the sperm whale. Yet, beyond Melville’s allegory, did the fictional Ahab have a point in attributing more to the whale?

Too often, we err too closely to Starbuck’s unquestioning rationalism when thinking about nature’s role in history. Rather than considering the natural world as a set of dynamic forces, we conceptualize nature as a static setting, a background to the lively history of human actors. But “nature” is not…

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