“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.