When we shark aficionados talk about our undersea compatriots, those often-misunderstood creatures below the waves, do we refer to them as “sharks” or “the shark”? What’s the difference between the collective and the singular when it comes to their conservation? Over the years I have talked to hundreds of shark biologists, shark activists, shark fishermen, shark artists, and even traditional shark-callers about their relationship with these animals. With each conversation, I am more and more intrigued by the language they use.
Last year, as I was escaping the frigid New York winter in sunny South Florida, I enjoyed a post-dive conversation with a shark biologist who continually referred to her objects of study as “sharks.” She told me about diving with sharks in the Bahamas, watching sharks from a boat in South Africa, and the amount of sharks that lose their fins each year to illegal fishing operations throughout the world. A few months later, back in New York at a cozy coffee shop, I spoke with a poet who told me how “the shark” and other sea life were an inspiration to French Surrealist writers, sculptors, and painters as they searched the world for images of the bizarre and the primal.
Not once did my friend mention “sharks;” only “the shark” and its inspirational role as a monstrous muse. With both the biologist and the poet expressing their reverence for sharks (or the shark), it seems that either way might be appropriate for our use as shark advocates. Perhaps the two terms are interchangeable.
Yet anthropology has shown that language and word choice are far more consequential than that lowercase ‘s’ might suggest. As populations travel to different environments, we encounter other populations who often differ in appearance, culture, and social organization. When the individuals of these two groups meet, the ways in which we refer to our “others” sets the tone for our mutual interaction. There are many examples of this in human history—some good, some tragic. But our question here is more about the rights of non-human animals and the responsibilities of their human stewards. What follows is a brief attempt to identify the difference between “sharks” and “the shark” as it relates to the human practice of shark conservation.
To say “sharks” in the plural form indicates a collection of individuals. When compared with our own sense of individuality, the idea of “sharks” gives each individual shark a life-history. This has significant power as a tool of conservation. By saying “sharks” and valuing each member of this group as an individual, we are suggesting that the life of that individual is important and to influence the death of it would be morally wrong. With this considered, the use of “sharks” seems more appropriate when we are talking about the prevention of shark deaths (by fishing, finning; as with the recently proposed cull in Western Australia). When my biologist friend tells me that “sharks are threatened,” or “sharks kill less people each year than falling coconuts,” she is planting in my head a logical follow-up: I should not kill sharks, or, I should work to save sharks.
On the other hand, if we say “the shark,” we are referring to a collective rather than a collection. This gives the shark a species-history, which also holds great power as a tool of conservation. By saying “the shark,” we invoke its long evolutionary achievement, its important role in the marine ecosystem, and its complex relationship with humankind. “The shark” seems to be a better choice of words when we are talking about the prevention of shark extinction, or referring to the multiple connections (ecological, spiritual, artistic) between our species and the many different species of shark. When a poet says “The shark was inspirational to pre-war French artists,” or an ecologist says “The shark is at the top of the food chain,” they plant in our heads the logical follow up, We should work to keep the shark around for ours and future generations.
With the privilege of the spoken word, humans as both individuals and as a species have come to dominate other individuals and species whose means of communication are incommensurable with ours. So, while it might seem silly to say so many words here about the humble letter ‘s’, the careful use of it holds great significance for the way our message about sharks (or the shark!) reaches its intended audience.