The elephant in the butterfly net: a fable

From Born Expecting the Pleistocene:

Suppose there was an elephant who somehow managed to get a butterfly net stuck across the front part of the top of his head. Suppose further that the elephant knew that the purpose of a butterfly net was for capturing butterflies. Suspend your disbelief a bit further and suppose that the elephant thought that because it was caught in the net, it was, like a butterfly, trapped, and had no recourse but to submit to the demands of the person holding the other end of the net. And suppose that, tragically, there was in fact no one on the other end of the net.

You are walking through the jungle and happen upon this elephant, which is by this time well on the way to starvation because, being trapped in the net, it has not been able to move from the spot for several days. What would you do to try to save the elephant? Feed the elephant by hand so that it doesn’t die? Inform the elephant that there is no one holding the other end of the net? Attempt to convince the elephant that it is not a butterfly, and thus not subject to the rules of butterfly nets, that a butterfly net is powerless against its massive bulk? It seems the simplest solution might be just to remove the net.

There is one other possibility, however. Since the elephant is already convinced it is helpless and at the mercy of its captor, you might simply grab hold of the other end of the net yourself and start issuing commands.

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Author: Mark Seely

Mark Seely is a writer, social critic, professional educator, and cognitive psychologist. He was formerly employed as Associate Professor and Chair of Psychology at Saint Joseph’s College, Indiana, where for twenty years he taught statistics, a wide variety of psychology courses, and an interdisciplinary course on human biological and cultural evolution. Originally from Spokane, Dr. Seely now resides in Lynnwood, Washington.

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