Are Whales Fish?

“When I was very young, I was suitably impressed to learn that, appearances notwithstanding, the whale is not a fish. Nowadays these questions of classification move me less; and it does not worry me unduly when I am assured that history is not a science.”
–E.H. Carr, What is History?

It’s the end of term, and after packing a few billion years of history into twelve action-packed lectures, Bill Turkel has passed me the baton in our course on Science, Technology, and Global History. I gave my first real lecture last week (I filled in once back in October) on a critical subject: are whales fish?

Don’t scoff. Whales are not fish, I know, but when you examine the taxonomies, “whale” and “fish” both turn out to be such messy, arbitrary, non-monophyletic* categories that the smugness with which I, and generations of eight-year-old know-it-alls before and since, have always reported that fact turns out to be a little unfounded. And historically speaking, whales were fish, by most people’s lights, until some time in the 18th or 19th centuries. So the lecture was really a history of classification with whales as a central problem of knowledge. Here are my slides, if you’re interested, though they are not really intended to make sense without the lecture.

(*I learned that word from my sister (a biology prof) while writing this lecture. I was even able to borrow some of her slides.)

The 9th edition of Linnaeus’ masterwork of classification, the Systema Natura, said whales were fish; the 10th edition, published only two years later, said they were not. In 1818, New York City was momentarily captivated by the trial of Maurice v. Judd, which turned on just this question. My lecture drew heavily on a terrific book about this case, D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case that Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. In Burnett’s hands, Maurice v. Judd becomes a story of popular science, deep epistemology, claims to intellectual authority, the place of expertise in a young and rowdy democracy, and more. It’s also funny and surprisingly exciting. So I cribbed from it shamelessly. I also pulled in a chunk on the history and philosophy of classification from Stephen Asma’s equally lively Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, and tried, a little clumsily, to connect Linnaeus’ 18th-century tree of life to Diderot’s contemporaneous tree of knowledge. Plus I got to show a clip from The Simpsons and expound on one of my pet obsessions: that whales, and Moby Dick, are cool.

Edited to add: Zot! When listing the people I cribbed from in giving this lecture, I scandalously left out Dylan Thuras, of Curious Expeditions fame, who recently posted this terrific piece on whaling, moustaches, spermaceti, ether, time dilation, and exploding stars–in other words, pretty a much a precis of everything I want to get into this course.


  1. Wicked awesome slides, though on 11/16, the quote on Buffon’s System, ya got one too many of these: “. The Carr quote, “…history is not a science.” it has me thinking. Ernest Rutherford [Lord Kelvin], once made a crack about science being either physics or stamp collecting. An unsourced variant is, “That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting.” I think what he was trying to say, is that classification was getting in the way. History may not be a science, but science, good science [physics], is a history. Unfortunately, the language it’s written in is mathematics, so few people actually get around to experiencing the obsession, religion, idealism versus pragmatism, revenge, racism, hierarchical relationships, and politics behind a messy integral.

  2. It’s lovely to see a fellow historian’s lecture-slide strategy; thanks for sharing this! (I’m going to steal the “Simpsons characters standing in for historical actors” trick.) How long are your lecture periods? I don’t think I could get through this much material in 50 minutes.

  3. Adam: I actually mentioned the Rutherford quote about physics and stamp collecting! Great minds yadda yadda…

    Greg: It’s a monster 3-hour lecture, actually. I’m still figuring out how much material I need to fill the time. It just meets once a week. It’s pedagogically problematic, but we had to do it that way to fit the schedules of our target audience in science and engineering.

  4. Does this answer the question of just what swallowed Jonah? I believe the question of whether it was a whale or a fish occupied Darrow and Bryan for a while on the 7th day of the Scopes Trial, if I’m remembering aright…

  5. @tona: I do not know, but I was pleased to learn (via Wikapedia, so caveat lector) that the sperm whale has the largest gullet of any living animal – it is the only animal that can swallow an adult human without chewing.

    @anon: Now that would have made a cool slide.

  6. So the answer is at least three. 🙂

    That sounds like him to me. The reason Capt. Fish testified that the whale was not a fish was because he had a lot of money invested in whale oil, and didn’t want to pay the inspection fees on fish oil.

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  8. Whales are exceptionally intelligent. What do whales think they are? Has anyone asked?

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