Posted by: captainfalcon | February 13, 2011

Addenda to the Ashram

1. Elickson’s article on emergent whale law is available here ( His tidy tale posits that whaling communities developed three different legal regimes depending on the nature of their prey.

Eighteenth century British whalers operating off Greenland developed fast fish, loose fish, according to which claimant owned the whale as long as it was attached to his vessel. “This fast-fish rule was well suited to [the Greenland] fishery. The prey hunted off Greenland was the right whale. Right whales, compared to the sperm whales that later became American whalers’ preferred prey, are both slow swimmers and mild antagonists” (Elickson, 89). Fast-fish, loose-fish therefore reduced transaction costs (whalers didn’t have to inspect a loose fish to see whether it bore another’s harpoon) without increasing the risk of conflict (because a loose fish probably was unpursued). It also incentivized competence, as only the incompetent would lose a Right. Finally – the desideratum Elickson emphasizes – it ensured the efficient collection of whale carcasses. Right whales had a tendency to sink after death, pulling free of their line. They would then rise several days later, often after their original whaler was a long way off. If “iron holds the whale” then the carcasses would just float about become distended and of use to nobody. Fast-fish, loose-fish ensured that scavenger-ships collected the floaters and put them to use.

The main alternative to fast-fish, says Elickson, is iron holds the whale. Under this regime, a whaler had title to a whale (i) he had iron in it and (ii) he was in fresh pursuit. Iron held the whale primarily “in fisheries where the more vigorous sperm whales predominated.” In such fisheries, a whale’s being loose was a less reliable proxy for its being unclaimed; fast fish, loose fish would have reduced the informational costs of whaling by raising the likelihood of conflict. Additionally, a loose fish with iron in it did not imply an inept whaler – sperm whales put the ferae in ferae naturae – so fast fish, loose fish would have incented free riding more than competence. Finally, because sperm whales tended to swim in schools, iron holds the whale maximized the number of kills; ships could get to the business of slaughter without worrying about securing their whales, first.

There was also supposed to be a regime according to which the value of a whale was split, but because the doctrine doesn’t have a cool name and is comparatively lame, I won’t dwell on it.

Finally, see here ( for a revisionist account on which  Elickson’s peddling a just-so story that has its genesis in a paragraph of Moby Dick, and in actuality it was anarchy out there.

2. My new theory on the division of the sexes, Chris, is that those human populations wherein labor was divided between men and women – roughly (because the details don’t matter) men worked, women labored (and, nod to feminism, picked berries) – where more successful than those in which everyone did everything. It makes sense, therefore, that populations where men had a tendency to group together and women had a tendency to group together would be more successful than populations wherein that didn’t occur. One mechanism by which such groupings could be effectuated is by making it more agreeable for men to be with men and women with women. Obviously, making such division too agreeable would not give a population a differential reproductive advantage. Hence lust, but hence, too, its fleetingness.

Possibly you have a revisionist account on which I am peddling a just-so story that has its genesis (no doubt) in a paragraph of Sociobiology, and in actuality it’s harmony out there.

3. MM, the reason your ears were luminescent is that we were talking about you. Are you coming to Easter? You should come to Easter. We lived together for four years and we’ve barely communicated in two. Our population would be differentially unsuccessful if your tendencies became widespread.

4. WordPress is terrible, so I was unable to hyperlink the t3xt. That’s why the secondary literature on whale norms is so yucky looking.



  1. CF,

    I realized I never responded to this missive. The whale law stuff was all quite awesome. I especially liked the connection between right whale-FFLF/sperm whale-IHTW. Very interesting.

    As for point two, I appreciated the clarification. I thought you were arguing that the gendering of animals predated/caused lust, hence my bringing up flatworms (and their penis fencing). That said, the current theory is in fact a bunch of adaptionist nonsense that constructed around an unlikely just-so story that occurs probably too recently in human development to have that strong a basis for human behavior. This is not to say the actual psychological point is not true, just that the particular explanation of its origin does not hold. I do not have sufficient data, personally or otherwise, to comment on its ultimate validity. However, I will note, at risk of bringing up elephant seals in yet another discussion of human ethology, that in most mammalian species (and, thus, one assumes this is also true of the vast majority of our mammalian anscestors), are arranged socially with women/children and one or a few males in one major grouping and then singular or lesser bands of mature males roaming independant, which may or may not inflect your current hypothesis.

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