Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life


What David Starr Jordan set in motion by practicing the art of taxonomy, by following Darwin’s advice to sort creatures by evolutionary closeness, led to a fateful discovery. In the 1980s taxonomists realized that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.
Birds exist.
Mammals exist.
Amphibians exist.
But fish, in particular, do not exist.


Why Fish Don’t Exist is one of those memoirs dressed up as an historical investigation, and in the moment, I was completely fascinated by everything Lulu Miller wanted to tell me about her life, what she uncovered about the life of David Starr Jordan (early Ichthyologist and founding President of Stanford University), and how those two lives chimed and clanged together when held up side by side. Miller’s voice is colloquial and chummy, but also philosophical and thoughtful, and I was repeatedly enchanted by her turns of phrase. All of that reflects my reaction in the moment; Miller is a gifted storyteller. But when it was over, it nagged at me that Miller might have been manipulating her narrative in order to conform to a traditional story arc — I doubt very much that Miller didn’t know that Jordan was a white supremicist eugenicist (and, maybe, a murderer) until the point in her story that she tells us so — and so I felt a bit manipulated in the end. That doesn’t change the facts of this narrative — all of which I was fascinated to learn — and it doesn’t change the enchantment I felt in the moment — Miller is a very good storyteller — but it nags at me all the same. More loved than not, I’m rounding up to four caveated stars.

What words go here?
Imagine seeing thirty years of your life undone in one instant. Imagine whatever it is you do all day, whatever it is you care about, whatever you foolishly pick and prod at each day, hoping, against all signs that suggest otherwise, that it matters. Imagine finding all the progress you have made on that endeavor smashed and eviscerated at your feet.
Those words go here.

David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) was a prolific taxonomist (discovering and naming nearly a fifth of the fish from around the world known in his times) who was influenced equally by his Puritan upbringing (and belief that order could be discovered within the chaos of God’s creation) and by Charles Darwin (who encouraged biologists to take a scalpel to their specimens in order to discover how systemic similarities reflect relationships on the web of life). Jordan was so successful at collecting unique species, and so busy in his professional life, that by the time he became the first President of Stanford University, his office contained thousands of named, but unrecorded, specimens in jars. And when the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 smashed his entire collection, the story has it that Jordan gritted his teeth and went to work, salvaging what he could and more permanently attaching name tags to those specimens that he recognised.

Maybe Cape Cod is fertile ground for existential transformation. Something about the metals in its sandy soil catalyzing metaphysical shifts — I don’t know. All I know is I, too, had my entire worldview rearranged when I was visiting its shores. It happened when I was about seven years old, and oddly enough, it was that moment that would pave the way for my obsession with David Starr Jordan, that would make him the kind of person I hoped could save me when my life later unraveled.

By contrast, Lulu Miller was raised by her biologist father to be an atheist and to believe that there is no order to the chaos of life; that, in the big picture, her existence mattered very little. Prone to depression and self-harm, when Miller blows up her life as a young adult, it was the anecdote about Jordan getting to work salvaging his collection that gave her own life some sudden purpose; Miller needed to understand what made this man carry on in the face of such overwhelming devastation. As Miller would eventually learn, Jordan wrote prolifically throughout his life (from children’s stories to class syllabi), and Miller plumbs it all for clues, eventually sketching out the entire life of the man and finding ways to make it chime and contrast with her own (in the footnotes of some academic work, Miller even discovers Jordan referencing the one Darwin quote that her own father had framed on his office wall. Significant!) Unflattering information is eventually revealed about Jordan and Miller gloats that it is a fitting karmic retribution (not that she believes in such things) that he spent his life categorising fish, and as a category, they no longer officially exist.

If fish don’t exist, what else do we have wrong? Slow dawning for me, a scientist’s daughter, but when I give up the fish, I realize that science itself is flawed. Not the beacon toward truth I had always thought it was, but a blunt tool that can wreak a lot of havoc along the way.

In the end, I think that Lulu Miller wanted to talk about herself more than she wanted to talk about David Starr Jordan, and that’s not entirely terrible: her story, her work, her family, it’s all interesting. And the information that she divulges about Jordan’s life and work was also interesting, and new, to me (I did not go into this anticipating the negative revelations so I didn’t bristle at Miller’s setup of him as a respected scientist and academic). I was also fascinated to learn that fish don’t exist; how have I not heard that before? A thoroughly enjoyable read in the moment, with a few nagging quibbles after the fact.