The Scorpion and the Frog: A Fable

Jonathan Blumen (1995), writes as follows:

“Gandhi succeeded in his variation on the prisoner’s dilemma because the British were not willing to resort to the ultimate defection. A player, like the Nazis, willing to stop at nothing, creates an illogical loop much like the one that results when two players play a series for a known number of moves. Since, on the last move, the future has no shadow, I might as well defect. Since the other player will certainly be smart enough to defect on that move as well, I may as well defect on the move before, when he may still be cooperating. But, since he is smart enough to reason this through the way I did, he will probably defect on that move too. So again I will consider defecting a move earlier. But so will he. The result: we both defect on the first move and each move afterwards. Because the scorpion will kill you as soon as it is given a chance, you must find a way to defect earlier than the scorpion, and decisively. But the scorpion will study the situation, looking for a way to defect earlier than you can; so you must assume he will do so, and seek to defect earlier still. Like gunfighters in a Western movie who run down the street at each other, howling and shooting as soon as they catch sight of each other, the prisoner’s dilemma escalates into an immediate duel to the death. The concept of a pre-emptive strike expresses nothing other than a strategy based on defecting early and decisively. Tarquinian’s symbolic cutting of the tops from the tallest flowers, or the massacre of opponents after any coup d’etat in history, are other examples.

“It is the scorpion that pulls humanity down. If you are not yourself a scorpion, you still are unable to play every move of every game in the cooperation zone, because sooner or later you will meet a scorpion. Not every scorpion is a suicide bomber; the law partner who made a successful motion to cut my draw, forcing my resignation from a law firm, suffered the symbolic fate of the scorpion when the firm’s biggest client (the one I alone knew how to service) left as a result, and the firm folded. Yeats’ judgment that “things fall apart, the center cannot hold”, because “the worst are full of passionate intensity” is a recognition of the fact that there are scorpions.

“Scorpions may know the consequences, and not care, like the suicide bomber, or may, through vanity and denial, refuse to see the consequences, like my ex-partner. In any event, the effect is the same: a player defects when there is no reason to, and something–a life, an enterprise–ends as a result.

“Game theory does not really take scorpions into account. It holds that people will defect because that is in their best interest–because the future has no shadow. Game theory fails as a tool when we are dealing with sociopathology or extreme denial. The human dilemma is that all progress ultimately fails or at least slides back, that anything once proven must be proven again a myriad of times, that there is nothing so well established that a fundamentalist (of any religion or stripe) cannot be found to deny it, and suffer the consequences, and then deny that he suffered the consequences.”

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