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A science reporter grapples with an ichthyologist’s all-consuming passion for categorization

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

Lulu Miller
Simon & Schuster
2020
240 pp.
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Part of being human is labeling things. We mentally label people, animals, and objects, sorting them into separate categories in our minds. When we encounter unfamiliar entities, we attempt to match what we see to our cerebral collections. But sometimes our internal labeling system is based on fundamental misconceptions, and this can have disastrous consequences.

Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller tells the story of David Starr Jordan, who, together with his students, discovered more than 2500 fish species at the turn of the 20th century—nearly 20% of the fish known at the time. As Miller reveals, however, his ironclad belief in categorization and the presence of a hierarchy in nature ultimately led him to promote misguided and morally abhorrent social policies.

Like its take-home message, this extraordinary book defies classification. It is a memoir, a biography, and possibly a murder mystery. Miller, a gifted storyteller known for her work on the popular NPR podcast Invisibilia, uses her own philosophical crises and curiosities to drive the narrative forward and grants the reader a front-row seat to her emotional and intellectual journey.

The book’s curious title refers to the idea that many taxonomists no longer consider “fish” a meaningful category. A lungfish, for example, because of its lunglike organs and the structure of its heart, is “more closely related to the cow than to the salmon,” Miller writes. Yet we continue to use “fish” as a catchall label for many water-dwelling species. This, she hypothesizes, formalizes their status as “other” and helps us normalize our view of these species as food and as objects to be exploited.

Born in 1851, Jordan marveled at the natural world from a young age. After graduating from Cornell University, he attended a summer course in natural history on Penikese Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, that had been established by prominent biologist Louis Agassiz. “Here I made my first acquaintance with fishes of the sea,” Jordan wrote in the first volume of his memoir, The Days of a Man. Energized by the experience and “his prophet Louis Agassiz,” Jordan set out to make a career of naming fish. He would become the foremost ichthyologist of his time and, at age 40, was appointed Stanford University’s first president.

Miller first heard of Jordan on a tour of a science museum in California, where she learned how he had bounced back from near-ruin after an earthquake almost destroyed 30 years of his life’s work. Years later, devastated by a breakup, she remembered this anecdote and decided to look deeper into the scientist’s life in the hope that his story might offer useful lessons in how to persevere in the face of adversity.

Jordan, it turned out, had overcome not one but many major setbacks. When a fire destroyed his collections in 1883—“[t]he jars would have exploded like tiny bombs,” notes Miller—he did not back down from his quest to order nature. And when, on 18 April 1906, an earthquake ruined many of his specimens and separated others from their labeled jars, the taxonomist set about sewing tin name tags “directly to the flesh” of the specimens he recognized, a practice he would continue for the rest of his career. “It was a small innovation with a defiant wish, that his work would now be protected against the onslaughts of Chaos, that his order would stand tall next time she struck,” Miller writes.

But Jordan also became engrossed in a different labeling scheme, one promoting a eugenics movement that led to the forcible sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans. In an article published in 1898 and in several later books, he advocated “for the cleansing of the gene pool,” Miller writes. His efforts helped pass the first eugenics sterilization laws in the United States in the early 1900s. The consequences of those laws reverberate today. In a particularly heartbreaking chapter, Miller meets a woman named Anna who, in 1967 at the age of 19, had been sterilized against her will. “I always wanted kids, but I couldn’t have none,” Anna tells her.

The term “eugenics,” Miller notes, was coined by Charles Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton, who, like Jordan, failed to appreciate Darwin’s assertion that variation in genes, and in species, leads to evolutionary health and success. “The fact that many of his fish were in fact discovered by the very targets of his eugenicist campaign—the immigrants and ‘paupers’ whose value to society he dismissed—was something David chose to omit from the scientific rec­ord,” she observes.

Jordan went to his grave believing in hierarchies, labels, and categories. But Miller is left skeptical of this worldview. In the personal thread of the book, she describes finding happiness with someone who differs from her initial expectations for a long-term romantic partner. The best fit, she surmises, often lies outside of our predefined boxes.

About the author

The reviewer is a science writer in Washington, DC 20036, USA.