Moby Dick is usually regarded as a novel of deep symbolism, but, Randall Collins notes, it is built on a practical observation:
Herman Melville, through his experiences on whaling ships, recognized that a harpooned whale essentially kills itself. By running away, the whale dragged a boat-load of sailors for several miles until the whale was exhausted, and this eventually allowed the harpooner to close in and finish it off. A whale is much bigger and stronger than its pursuers; if it fought them head-to-head in the water it would win. But whales are not belligerent animals, and they are frightened, and this is what drags them to their death.
Moby Dick is a thought-experiment. Melville imagines what it would be like if a whale were as intelligent as a human. Instead of running away it would turn and fight. Moby Dick, the white whale, is scarred with harpoons still tangled on his back; these are wounds or trophies from previous encounters with humans, but he always turned and wrecked the harpooners’ boats. As literary critics have generally recognized, he is white to indicate he is nearly human. But no one in the novel explicitly recognizes wherein his humanness lies — that he recognizes the tactic humans rely on to kill whales. The limits of humans’ perceptiveness of animals come out in their seeing Moby Dick only as supernatural or diabolical (and in the case of the critics, as symbolic). Moby Dick is not necessarily malevolent, but he is intelligent enough to see that running away will kill him, and that his only chance is to turn and counter-attack.
In this respect, Moby Dick also illustrates a main principle of human-on-human conflict. Winning a fight generally begins with establishing emotional dominance; and most of the physical damage occurs after one side emotionally dominates the other (Collins, 2008, Violence: A Macro-Sociological Theory).