Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Bully Fish

Who Knows What Evil Lurks In The Aquarium?

By Miriam Schulman

Cursed with a mother who is allergic to cats and who believes dogs are as much work as new babies, my daughter—the future veterinarian—has had to content herself with tetras. For those who are not familiar with aquarium life, these are the fish that cannot be killed, heartier even than guppies. They, alone, managed to survive our sometimes oversolicitous feeding.

[A Fish]

But while our tetras were robust, even my daughter did not find them fascinating. They are pretty but negligible things. Sometimes they toss their tails; sometimes they pivot; and sometimes, in a rare, food-pellet-inspired charge, they dart up to the surface. But mostly, they float. It is hard to imagine their fishy lives, so thoroughly are they without incident.

We started out with two of these creatures, coexisting quite happily amid the neon-pink plastic foliage. In fact, they did so well that after about six months, we decided to add a third tetra to our fish family. We came home with our little plastic bag, the new tetra lolling inside like a fetus in an amniotic sac. As the aquarist had instructed, we laid the new fish, sac and all, in the tank until he became accustomed to the temperature of his new home. He was larger than his fellows and a slightly different variety, with a bright red pupil to his unblinking eye. My daughter undid the rubberbanded end and let the newcomer come home.

Although it was not immediately apparent, with that act, we had introduced evil into the lives of our pets. At first, we noticed no change from the usual aimless swimming; but one day, not too long after, I looked over at the tank and saw only the new kid on the block. Imagining that we had finally killed the other two by overfeeding, I approached the tank. They were not, as I expected, floating limply on the surface, their lidless eyes filmed and creamy. In fact, it took me a moment to locate them although our tank can't be more than a foot long. Our two long-term residents were inside the filter. I assumed that some flaw in the system had sucked the hapless fish into the plastic cage. Quickly, I disassembled the filter and released the two animals into the general population.

The next day, they were back. If there was some force drawing them into the bubbler, it certainly wasn't affecting the newcomer, who patrolled the rest of the tank serenely. Once again, I liberated the two fish, but this time, I took a moment to watch what happened. The freed fish cowered in the corner. I added a little fish food. The new guy shot up to the top of the tank, but the two others still huddled together behind the wedge of the filter. Finally, one of them ventured up to the surface, but the new fish wheeled from his dinner and pursued the smaller fish back into hiding. The two old friends could only cull a few crumbs as they drifted to the bottom of the tank.

Over the next weeks, the children and I saw these behaviors repeated in a pattern that more than explained why the original fish spent most of their time behind the aquarium furniture. We could also see the new fish grow even larger in proportion to his tankmates. The kids took to calling him the bully fish though I explained that animals were ruled by drives and instincts to which it was inappropriate to attach moral terminology.

That interpretation served until my daughter had a play date with one of her school chums. As do many of my children's friends, this girl passed a few moments with her chin in her hand, staring at the antics of the fish. But her reaction was different. After watching the bully fish chase the others into the fake flora, she turned to me and said, "Aren't you going to do something?"

Until that moment, I had seen the animals' conduct as purely their own business-Darwin in the fish bowl. But this girl's question made me see my own agency in the situation. Had I not inserted the serpent into the (pink plastic) garden?

Not that the fish itself was evil; I still felt sure of that. But I did place it in a context where it caused harm, contributing to what biologist Lyall Watson refers to as "the ecology of evil." In his book Dark Nature, Watson writes:

All plants and animals have a place of origin, a locus. This is where they 'belong,' where they fit. Such fitness is generally seen as an ability to become part of an ecological web. They coevolve with other species in that place and assume a position of least resistance, not consuming too much nor laying themselves open to undue consumption. They become 'just right.'

Evil, Watson argues, occurs when plants and animals are taken out of context or balance. The result: sea islands nibbled to scrub by domesticated goats, ornamental cactuses making 100,000 square miles of Australia into a bed of thorns. In nature, such catastrophes are generally caused by the manipulations of humans. From this perspective, the fate of the fish was very much my responsibility.

Beyond this moral, the experience also gave me a new way of considering evil: Perhaps it does not always inhere in persons or even in actions, but rather in violations of the ancient concept of decorum-fitting behavior to circumstances. How often is evil the product of people just doing what people do—but in the wrong context?

We can see this easily in young children who yell, "Mine," whenever someone else comes near their possessions. This instinct to protect turf is certainly not evil; indeed, it's sometimes necessary. The labeling of such behaviors (or such children) as "bad" does not help young people perform the complex balancing act between their own needs and those of the community.

While I might ponder these issues for years to come, at that moment, I had a crisis to resolve. And once my daughter's chum had elevated the fish tank to the sphere of morality, flushing the bully down the toilet did not feel like a seemly solution.

Another visit to the aquarist provided an option. Fish, he explained, are quite territorial. The bully had staked out his territory in the current configuration of our tank, and he would continue to run the other fish out of it. But if we changed the way the tank looked, we had a chance of providing all three fish with defendable space.

When we arrived home bearing all new glass marbles, plastic kelp, and coral, my husband suggested that the fish store manager might have had some ulterior motive in proposing this solution. But sure enough, redecorating helped. It was as if the fish agreed to swim on different planes.

Mostly, they have ignored each other...until recently, when we introduced a new little neon tetra into the tank. Yesterday, I noticed that it does seem to favor the space behind the filter. At least we live near the fish store, and there's a new "Donald Duck in a rowboat" bubbler my daughter has her eye on.

Miriam Schulman is the editor of Issues in Ethics.