The starfish story

For some strange reason I keep coming across references to this story all over the place. I’d never heard the story but apparently, it is so overused it is now a cliché.

So having familiarised myself with the story just now, I immediately noticed a flaw in it (damn these critical thinking skills!).

The story is about a bloke who is throwing starfish back into the sea. Another bloke asks him what he is doing. He tells him he is saving starfish. The other bloke looks at the miles of coastline and says he can’t possibly make a difference to the overall population of starfish. As the starfish guy throws another starfish into the sea he says “I’ve made a difference to that one.”

All very twee but as with all cliché’s nobody stops to think about it before they repeat the story parrot-like. Here is a conscientious guy going out of his way to help a species that can’t even evolve a basic survival strategy. What sort of design is it to have a salt water species getting stranded at every low tide? It’s doomed from the start. Unless, of course, the stranded starfish are sick or disabled and cannot get back into deep water before the low tide. In which case, by allowing the possibility of these sick starfish to breed with healthy specimens, this bloke is simply diluting the fitness of the starfish gene to survive in a hostile environment. Instead of saving an individual starfish, he is potentially threatening the survival of the entire species – the exact opposite of what he intended!

I’ve complained before about this idiocy in an article, where I bemoan the use of an incandescent light bulb to graphically illustrate a good idea.