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29 july 2021

"Crabbed" or "crabby" means "of a contrary and sour disposition," and "crabbed" appears several times in Shakespeare with that meaning; Cynthia Chris in her new book Crab notes that Shakespeare named Launce's testy dog "Crab" in Two Gentlemen of Verona. But the etymology of "crab" is twofold, and the senses seem to run together, historically. Shakespeare uses the word only once to mean the crustacean (Hamlet, to Polonius); everywhere else it means a sour apple. Crabbiness is thus overdetermined. You can participate in crabby behavior either by shuffling sideways and snapping your pincers at people, or by setting their teeth on edge.

Crabs aren't super-popular figures in the arts. There are some cartoon characters (Mr. Krabs in SpongeBob, Sebastian in The Little Mermaid), some in the occasional horror film; crabs show up now and then, Chris notes, in western art: in the vanitas still-life tradition (106-107) where they are pictured just about to stink on ice; in a striking 1889 canvas by Van Gogh (109).

I'm trying to think of crabs in poems and songs but coming up with little. "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," says J. Alfred Prufrock, but it seems important to the poem that the creature not be specified further. Nor do crabs feature much in literature. Salvo Montalbano, in Andrea Camilleri's detective novels, has frequent discussions with his grancio, the little crab who scuttles near the flat rock that Salvo sits on after lunch. I suppose the crab is a kind of sidekick. But that's crabs, always sidling along and never taking center stage.

Chris is fascinated with the many women scientists central to establishing crab systematics, especially a Smithsonian curator named Mary J. Rathbun who toiled over her uncharismatic charges for years, often without pay. Crabs sort themselves into three distantly-related lines of descent, of which the most familiar representatives are the blue crab, the hermit crabs, and the horseshoe crab. But it's hard to see the outline of crab taxonomy in Crab at times for all the proliferation of detail.

Just as, apparently, it can be hard to see some real-life individuals. Many species of crab have a penchant, nearly unique among animals, for disguising themselves by appropriating other organisms and plastering them all over their carapaces. Some wear anemones as a kind of clothing (48); some carry anemones around to use as sorts of tools (90); others smack stuff all over themselves, the bricolagey "decorator crabs" (94) that just like to dress up. The only other species that really goes in for this kind of pointless behavior is Homo sapiens, an ape of the savannahs with far too much time on its hands.

Crabs are delicious – I just bought some prepared crab cakes on the strength of reading Crab, though the author herself says she's spent too much time with them to eat them anymore. But crabs are also a lot of work. Crabs likely feel pain, in the sense of the aftereffects and memory of trauma, so the various tortures we inflict on them in the name of cuisine are perhaps unduly callous. And it goes beyond torture at times to gloating. Chris evinces the popular YouTube genre mukbang, where you simply watch people eat big elaborate meals. Crabs, because they're so complicated, are popular mukbang subjects. "The eating isn't really eroticized" (123), says Chris, but for all that mukbang is adjacent to porn, perhaps a little closer than those videos where you watch somebody unwrap a mail-order package. All these video genres allow the viewer to step into someone else's intimate activity, and who's to say where curiosity ends and prurience begins?

Crabs as a whole are not threatened with extinction any time soon, and they are as likely to outlast us as any of our other contemporaries. But global warming and the acidification of oceans are definitely moving crab populations around, decimating them in some places, putting pressure on them to move, adapt, or die. Chris' final chapter imagines a "world without crabs" – as I've said, it would be easier to imagine a world with crabs and without people, as obtained for millions of years before we intruded. But she vividly evokes the web of interactions that crabs share with all members of their environments. Pressure on one means pressure on all.

Chris, Cynthia. Crab. London: Reaktion, 2021.