Why Fish Don’t Exist | Reflections & Notes

Lulu Miller. Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life. Simon & Schuster, 2020. (225 pages)


I don’t think I can overstate how much I love this book. It is an astonishing, captivating, and mind-bending read full of everything; murder, mystery, science, philosophy, psychology, eugenics, taxonomy, Latin, etymology, history, mythology, and Stanford University. Reading this book will enrapture you in phenomenal storytelling, challenge everything you ever believed, and contort everything you thought you knew. It will even change your life.

For me, one of the greatest joys in life is to realize that you’ve been living a lie, that our attentions have been captivated by an illusion (a delusion?), only to be broken open by a sage, a prophet, or a fellow wanderer whose avid curiosity woos you into deep waters. I found this joy over and over again in reading this book, and thank Miller for captivating my attention, supercharging my curiosity, and ministering to my soul.

By some feat of what could only be considered divine magic, Miller has woven together these great cyclic paradoxes; accepting the Chaos is the only way to overcome one’s chaos; the fictions by which we live must first be exposed as fallacious so we can construct a life of delusions; the hierarchies we’ve constructed have led us to the ultimate insubordination, that categories do not exist; and that fate has captivated our imaginations to expose that fate itself is a mere fabrication.

Some of my favorite terms and ideas are:

  • “natura non facit saltum,” Latin for “nature doesn’t jump,” that nature has no hard lines or “edges,” that all things are “smoothly” related, interconnected, and incrementally evolved.
  • “sciosophy,” coined by David Starr Jordan to describe the “unfortunate fusion of science with philosophy,” a bastard and disdainful chimera.
  • “story editing,” a psychological strategy in which we create a slightly more positive narration of our existence.
  • “the dandelion principle,” that ecological complexity cannot be humanly comprehended, that all things have a variety of considerable effects in the world.
  • “linguistic castration,” a term of Frans de Waal to describe how humans use language to disempower animals and maintain our place at the top.

Finally, should we heed Miller’s exhortation to “give up the fish,” that would be the ultimate betrayal of our humanity, the great disdain against our pride of place, a concession to a delusion; and it would be the greatest existential gift we could give ourselves and the world.



Chaos is the only sure thing in this world. The master that rules us all. My scientist father taught me early that there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics: entropy is only growing; it can never be diminished, no matter what we do. (3) | A smart human accepts this truth. A smart human does not try to fight it. (3)

I started to wonder about this taxonomist [David Starr Jordan (DSJ)]. Maybe he had figured something out–about persistence, or purpose, or how to go on–that I needed to know. Maybe it was okay to have some outsized faith in yourself. Maybe plunging along in complete denial of your doomed chances was not the mark of a fool but–it felt sinful to think it–a victor? (5)

1. A Boy with His Head in the Stars

cf. Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae

The little ones, even though not beautiful, meant more to me than a hundred big ones all of a kind. A special proof of scientific as distinguished from aesthetic interest is to care for the hidden and insignificant. – DSJ

The hidden and insignificant. (12)

Psychologists have studied this, by the way, the sweet salve that collecting can offer in times of anguish. In Collecting: An Unruly Passion, psychologist Werner Muensterberger, who counseled compulsive collectors for decades, notes that the habit often kicks into high gear after some sort of “deprivation or loss or vulnerability,” with each new acquisition flooding the collector with an intoxicating burst of “fantasized omnipotence.” (14)

When people have this feeling of personal inefficiency, compulsive collecting helps them in feeling better. – Francisca López-Torrecillas

2. A Prophet on an Island

cf. Louis Agassiz …warned that “science, generally, hates beliefs.” (20)

Agassiz rose from his chair to deliver his welcome speech. It was a benediction too beautiful, according to David, to ever re-create. “What Agassiz said that morning can never be said again.” (24)

| Luckily for us, the famous poet John Greenleaf Whittier was also in attendance that summer and he did not agree… (24)

Said the Master to the youth:
“We have come in search of truth,
Trying with uncertain key
Door by door of mystery:
We are reaching, through His laws,
To the garment-hem of Cause,
Him, the endless, unbegun,
The Unnamable, the One
Light of all our light the Source,
Life of life, and Force of force.
As with fingers of the blind,
We are groping here to find
What the hieroglyphics mean
Of the Unseen in the seen,

I’ve never been great at poetry, but if I’m decoding those capitalizations right then what the taxonomists were searching for as they ogled their precious weeds and rocks and snails was… (25)

The Unnamable, the One, the Source, the Force, the Truth, the Unseen… (25)

God! (25)

|Indeed, in his writings Agassiz is clear: he believes that every single species is a “thought of God,” and that the works of taxonomy is to literally “translat[e] into human language…the thoughts of the Creator.” (25)

| Specifically, Agassiz believed that hiding in nature was a divine hierarchy of God’s creations that, if gleaned, would provide moral instruction. This idea of a moral code hidden in nature–a hierarchy, a ladder or “gradation” of perfection–has been with us for a long time. Aristotle envisioned a holy ladder–later Latinized to Scala Naturae–in which all living organisms could be arranged in a continuum of lowly to divine with humans at the top, followed by animals, insects, plants, rocks, and so on. And Agassiz believed that by arranging these organisms into their proper order, one could come to discern not just the intent of a holy maker but perhaps even the instructions for how to become better. (25)

Look at the parrot, the ostrich, and the songbird. Who among them is the highest on the ladder? If you could crack that, Agassiz figured, then you could learn which mattered more to God: speech, size, or song. But how do you crack the code? Well, that’s where things got fun. (26)

Agassiz explained that the best way to get to God was with a scalpel. … In their bones, their gristle, their guts. That was where the divine thoughts lay most exposed. (26)

To Agassiz, the shockingly similar skeletal plan of fish (their skulls, their vertebrae, their rib-like protrusions) represented a warning to “Man.” They were scaly reminders of how far a person could slip if he didn’t resist his base urges: “The moral and intellectual gifts that distinguish him from [the fish] are his to use or to abuse…He may sink as low as the lowest of his type, or he may rise to a spiritual height.” (27)

In this way, Agassiz presented nature as a sacred text. Even the dullest slug or dandelion could offer spiritual and moral guidance to those humans curious enough to look. Take all of those messages in aggregate and you get the intricate, awe-inspiring shape of what he called the divine plan. God’s fable-rich explanation o the meaning of it all, not just how all organisms are ranked, but the very road map–written in a convoluted set of morals–to ascension. (27)

3. A Godless Interlude

What could be a grim reality has instead pumped his life full of vigor. Has made him live big and good. I have strived my whole life to follow in his nihilistic, clown-shoed footsteps. To stare our pointlessness in the face, and waddle along toward happiness because of it. (36)

Even atheists like ritual. (39)

I wondered what it was that allowed [DSJ] to keep plunging his sewing needle at Chaos, in spite of all the clear warnings that he would never prevail. I wondered if he had stumbled across some trick, some prescription for hope in an uncaring world. And because he was a scientist, I held on to the distant possibility that his justification for (41) persistence, whatever it was, fit into my father’s worldview. Perhaps he had cracked something essential about how to have hope in a world of no promises, about how to carry forward on the darkest days. About how to have faith without Faith. (42)

But after reading about David’s experience on Penikese Island, I was beginning to worry. If God was the light that lit his search through dark times, then he didn’t have any more to teach me. (42)

On the Origin of Species was filled with all kinds of heresies–that all life on Earth evolved from “one primordial form,” that humans are still evolving and could, one day, even go extinct. But perhaps the most difficult idea for a taxonomist to accept was that species were not hard, immutable categories in nature. Darwin had observed so much variety in creatures traditionally assumed to be one species that his sense of a hard line between species had slowly begun to dissolve. Even that most sacred line, the supposed inability of different species to create fertile offspring, he realized was bunk. “It cannot be maintained that species when intercrossed are invariably sterile,” Darwin writes, “or that sterility is a special endowment and sign of creation.” Leading him finally to declare that species–and indeed all those fussy ranks taxonomists believed to be immutable in nature (genus, family, order, class, etc.)–were human inventions. Useful but arbitrary lines we draw around an ever-evolving flow of life for our “convenience.” “Natura non facit saltum,” he writes. Nature doesn’t jump. Nature has no edges, no hard lines. (42)

| Imagine how troubling that would b to you if you were a taxonomist. Learning that the objects you held in your hands were not puzzle pieces after all, not clues, but products of randomness. … They were snapshots of Chaos in motion. (43)

Oh, how this line made me adore David. It made me want to wrap my arms around his chest, plant a kiss on his begrudging cheek, and tell him he was brave, he was good, for heeding the devastating truth of evolution and finding a way to forge on.

| It meant, of course, that I could keep using him as my guide. It meant that, perhaps as brazen as he seemed with his sewing-needle sword, he operated from a place of reason. It meant that denial was not necessarily a path to humiliation. It meant that maybe, just maybe, by following in his overconfident footsteps I would find my way back toward a glimmering refuge after all. (43)

4. Chasing Tail

Ever the disciple of his prophet Louis Agassiz, David examined the organisms he was encountering for moral instruction. He had taken Agassiz’s foggy idea of “degeneration,” mashed it up with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and ran with it. (49)

This is just conjecture, of course, but how does a man go so quickly from being unnoticed by the human world–mocked for his pursuits and occasionally even abused–to being exalted by it? I picture a meek and murky man, disty and pale, sliding by unnoticed, slowly filling up with that light, that air, that radiant matter, whatever it is, of Purpose. (50)

| It makes a difference in a life. (50)

| His hunt, by the way, through extinguished of its God by Darwin, David considered no less noble. As David saw it, he was still on the hunt for the shape of the ladder that revealed how all creatures and plants were ordered–only now he believed its arrangement had been forged by time, not God. But the secrets it had to tell were no less crucial, no less revealing. By looking very closely at fish anatomy, he told himself, he was discovering our true creation story, what experiments in life it took to make humans. And he was uncovering the clues–written in the accidental missteps and successes of other creatures–that could potentially help our kind (50) advance even further. It was Agassiz’s same mission, but without a creator at the helm. (51)

Till his dying day, Agassiz was one of the country’s loudest proponents of the idea of polygenism–the belief that races are different species, and that black people, in particular, were subhuman. (55)

[David Jordan] published satires about charlatans who claimed to have discovered “the soul of an atom” or “astral doubles.” He even came up with a name for the field: sciosophy. The unfortunate fusion of science with philosophy. “Instruments of precision, logic, mathematics, the telescope, the microscope and the scalpel are not needed in sciosophy,” he jabbed, in a piece published in Science, “because life is short and humanity demands quick returns.” (58)

His bone to pick in the end, however, was not with the hucksters (58) making a buck off easy targets but with the easy targets themselves. Such loose thinking, such “trying to believe what we know is not true,” he wrote, led to a “vast amount of suffering in our society.” A brain that hopeful, that susceptible to flights of fancy, in other words, could become an instrument of evil. (59)

With each new fish, each new catch, each new name placed on a formerly unknown piece of the universe, came that impossibly intoxicating feeling. That sweet honey on the tongue. That hit of fantasized omnipotence. That lovely sensation of order. What a salve, a name. (59)

5. Genesis in a Jar

There is an idea in philosophy that certain things don’t exist until they get a name. Abstract things like justice, nostalgia, infinity, love, or sin. The thinking goes that these concepts do not sit out there on some ethereal plane waiting to be discovered by humans but instead snap into being when someone invents a name for them. The moment the name is uttered, the concept becomes “real,” in the sense that it can affect reality. We can declare war, truce, bankruptcy, love, innocence, or guilt, and in so doing, change the course of people’s lives. The name itself is a thing of great power, then, the vessel that drags the idea from the imaginary to the earthly realm. Before the word, however, the thinking goes, the concept is largely inert. (63)

The very first time a species is named, the specimen is placed in a very special jar, where it receives a very special honor. It is marked in the official scientific ledger as the sole maker of the species. In taxonomic lingo, any specimen is called a “type,” and, happily, this holy type happens to be called a “holotype.” (65)

One important rule about holotypes. If one is ever lost, you cannot simply swap a new specimen into the holy jar. No, that loss is honored, mourned, marked. The species line is forever tarnished, left without its maker. A new specimen will be chosen to serve as the physical representative of the species, but it is demoted to the lowly rank of “neotype.” (65)

| Neotype: a specimen later selected to serve as the representative specimen for a species when the original holotype has been lost or destroyed. (65)

| Even scientists like ritual. (65)

Specimen #51444. Agonomalus jordani. (66)

Agnomalus, comes from the Greek for “no corners.” A = without = gonias = angle, corner. Taxonomists from long ago had also noticed how its kind seems to defy the laws of physics. Agnomalus jordani. Jordan of the No Corners. Like a Möbius strip, two sides, but one, somehow. (67)

When people have this feeling of personal inefficiency, compulsive collecting helps them in feeling better. (69)

6. Smash

At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, Earth shrugged. (75)

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. (76)

And as if that weren’t enough, when David stumbled back outside to seek guidance from his prophet, he saw it.

The quake had thrown the statue of Louis Agassiz headfirst into the concrete. A ludicrous sight. A punch line. His feet pointing to the sky, his little marble hand still clutching its scientific book–this text he believed would chart the course to order, having led him finally to its inevitable end, his head buried in the (for what is concrete, but water mixed with …) sand. (78)

If I were the director of this particular play, I’d tell the set designers to dial it back a notch. But there you go, this is what the universe gave us. To me, there is no clearer message: Chaos reigns. (78)

So what does David do? | What does our careful man of science, who wants above all else to see the world for what it is, do? Does he hear what seems to be the obvious message of the earthquake? That entropy is the way of the world and no human can ever stop it? (78)

| Nope. This is when the bastard, the wonderful bastard, takes out his sewing needle and plunges it straight into our ruler’s throat. (78)

Maybe such unruly persistence is beautiful. | Maybe it is not mad at all. Maybe it is the quiet work of believing in Good. Of believing in a warmth, which you know does not exist in the stars, to exist in the hearts of fellow humans. Maybe it is something like trust. (80)

7. The Indestructible

“The Eagle and the Blue-Taled Skink”:

There was once a Blue-tailed Skink, and he sat on a log in the sun and had a good time, and on top of the tree over his head there was a big bald Eagle. The Eagle watched the Blue-tailed Skink sitting on the log in the sun, until she thought it was time to eat him. Then she swooped down on him. When the Skink saw the Eagle coming he gave a jump forward, so that when the Eagle got down there she just caught the end of his tail. The tail of the Skink will come off if you catch hold of it. I is made and put on that way. So the Skink left the Eagle with the tail in her claws. He was all right himself, and he ran down the side of the log while the Eagle at up the tail.

Then the Blue-tailed Skink looked up the tree and saw where high in the crotch of the tree the Eagle had a nest. in the nest were four eggs. So the Skink ran up the side of the tree to the nest. Then he looked down and saw the Eagle on the log eating up his tail. So he ate up the four eggs that the Eagle had laid in her nest, and said: “There is just enough meat in these eggs to make me a new tail.”

The Eagle saw the Skink sitting in the nest on the tree; so she flew up to seize him. But the Skink ran down on the other side. When the Eagle got back to her nest she saw that the eggs were gone, and she said: “I’ve eaten the Skink’s tail, and there is just enough meat in that tail to make me four new eggs.”

The Skink lay down in the shade under the log until he had grown another blue tail, and when he had done this, then he ran back up on the log and sat in the sun. The Eagle laid four more eggs in the nest and watched the Skink. Very soon the Eagle jumped down to catch him. She got the Skink by the end of the tail and the tail came off. Then the Skink ran away and saw the Eagle munching his tail, and the tail squirmed while the Eagle munched it. Then the Skink ran up the tree to the Eagle’s nest and saw four eggs there. So he ate the eggs; and the Eagle had the tail and the Skink had the eggs, and they were ready to start over again. For there was meat enough in the tail to make four more eggs, and meat enough in the eggs to make another blue tail.

It seems to me like a meditation on the futility of revenge, or perhaps a gory illustration of the most damning laws of physics, the law of conservation of mass: mass can neither be created nor destroyed. Most of his stories had this quality. They portrayed a claustrophobic world in which the characters could not escape (87) the cold rules of our universe. (88)

Ignorance is the most delightful science in the world because it is acquired without labor or pains and keeps the mind from melancholy – Giordano Bruno

And David uses the quote to indict his readers, to warn them that if they’ve ever chosen to shut out hard truths in the name of happiness they are complicit with Bruno’s killers. (88)

The way to live was, in every breath, to concede your insignificance, and make your meaning from there. Everywhere I looked, I saw it. Stern warnings against hubris, against magical thinking. In his syllabus for a course on evolution, for example, he sneaks in a whole section on the cosmic impotence of man. “Nature no respecter of persons,” he writes. “Tampering impossible. … Her laws immutable. … He who defies them wields a club of air.” I can only imagine the impassioned dia-(88)tribes that accompanied these notes, his fist held high in the air. His cosmically impotent fist. (89)

| You can even find it in his essays on temperance. Why, in the end, was he so opposed to drugs? Because they allow you to feel more powerful than you are! Or, as he puts it, they “forc[e] the nervous system to lie.” Alcohol, for example lets drinkers “feel warm when they are really cold, to feel good without warrant, to feel emancipated from those restraints and reserves which constitute the essence of character building.” In other words, a rosy view of yourself was anathema to self-development. A way to keep yourself stagnant, stunted, morally inchoate. A fast track to sad-sackery. (89)

| So if this truly was his worldview, if he was so wary of overconfidence, how on earth did he manufacture his persistence? How did he get himself up and out the door on the worst of days, when everything seemed lost, crumbled, hopeless? (89)

cf. The Philosophy of Despair

In it, David confesses that the trouble with the scientific worldview was that when you pointed it at the meaning of life, it showed you one thing. Futility: “The fires we kindle die away in coals; castles we build vanish before our eyes. The river sinks in the sands of the desert. … Whichever way we turn we may describe the course of life in metaphors of discouragement.” So what were you supposed to do? (89)

| Puritan that he is, David recommends the un-idling of hands. The “soul-ache…vanishes,” he writes, “with active out-of-door life and the consequent flow of good health.” He claims that salvation lies in the electricity of our bodies. “Happiness comes from doing, helping, working, loving, fighting, conquering,” he writes in a syllabus from around the same time, “from the exercise of functions; from self-activity.” Don’t overthink it, I think, is his point. Enjoy the journey. Savor the small things. The “luscious” taste of a peach, the (89) “lavish colors of tropical fish, the rush from exercise that allows one to experience “the stern joy which warriors feel.” Toward the end of the book, he quotes Thoreau–“There is no hope for you unless this bit of sod under your feet is the sweetest to you in this world–in any world”–and then he sends his readers off with a rousing chant of carpe diem. “Nowhere is the sky so blue, the grass so green, the sunshine so bright, the shade so welcome, as right here, now, today.” (90)

There is grandeur in this view of life. (91)

Never since man began to plan and to create has there been such a destruction on the results of human effort. Never has a great calamity been met with so little repining. Never before has the common man shown himself so hopeful, so courageous, so sure of himself and his future. For it is man, after all, that survives and it is the will of man that shapes the fates.

It is the lesson of earthquake and fire that man cannot be shaken and cannot be burned. The houses he builds are houses of cards, but he stands outside of them and can build again. It is a wonderful thing to build a great city. More wonderful still is it to be a city, for a city is composed of men, and forever man must rise above his own creations. That which is in man is greater than all that he can do. (93)

It is the will of man that shapes the fates. (94)

| It was the kind of lie he promised he would never tell himself. It was the kind of lie he had warned would lead to evil. It was the kind of lie he had spent his career crusading against–Nature no respecter of persons!–the kind of life he said was worth fighting to the death. Even he needed to believe it was true, so as not to be consumed by despair. (94)

8. On Delusion

…a few modifications were made in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A few traits slid from the proverbial unhealthy column to the healthy one. The term “delusions” was neutered to “positive illusions.” And by the late 1980s, largely because of a seminal paper by psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown … it (98) became widely accepted that a dash of self-deception…was good for the bones. (99)

Many therapists started practicing techniques like “story editing” or “reframing” to gently coax a patient into tinting her perception of herself into a more rosy one. The self-deception had to be moderate, that was key. Multiple studies found that extreme denial and delusion were maladaptive. But gentle lies, white lies, little rosy rosebuds of lies? Those could be hugely beneficial. The idea was that if you could take a person who was struggling, and help guide her story of herself into a slightly more positive one–one in which she was a bit stronger than she was, kinder than she was, where her breakup was not as much her fault as maybe it was–then you could see profound effects in her life. (99)

cf. Tim Wilson’s Redirect

Perhaps the greatest gift ever bestowed on us by evolution is the ability to believe we are more powerful than we are. It’s a hard lot being a human, these psychologists explain. You walk around with the knowledge that the world is fundamentally uncaring, that no matter how hard you work there is no promise of success, that you are competing against billions, that you are vulnerable to the elements, and that everything you ever love will eventually be destroyed. A little lie can take the edge off, can help you keep charging forward into the gauntlet of life, where you sometimes, accidentally prevail. (100)

The 1990s brought…a statement in a National Institute of Mental Health report that “considerable evidence suggests positive psychological benefits for people who believe their future will be rosier than they have any right to expect. Such optimism keeps people in a positive mood, motivates them to work toward future goals, fosters creative, productive work, and gives them a sense of being in control of their destiny.” (100)

cf. Angela Duckworth, Grit.

And what cognitive glitch helps you achieve grit? Positive illusions. [cf. “Positive Illusions About the Self: Short-Term Benefits and Long-Term Costs”] (101)

As you watch David go, you begin to wonder if he ever feels the stings of criticism. Or has he become so adept at wielding his trusty shield that they never even touch his heart?

Forget millennia of warnings to stay humble; maybe this is just how it works in a godless system. Maybe David Starr Jordan is proof that a steady dose of hubris is the best way of overcoming doomed odds. (103)

“Every age gets the lunatics it deserves,” British historian Roy Porter once wrote. (103)

Aggressors often think very highly of themselves, as evidenced by nationalistic imperialism, ‘master race’ ideologies, aristocratic dueling, playground bullies, and street gang rhetoric. – Baumeister and Bushman

Odd, too, how many people who might score high on tests for positive illusions share a peculiar quirk with David Starr Jordan, a belief that they can control Chaos with their very own hands. Fidel Castro once proposed building a shield around Cuba to protect it from hurricanes. Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov wanted to stop snowfall by spraying a chemical mist of cement upon the clouds. And speaking of cement barriers, there was once a man (105) of some power in this country who wanted to build a “physically imposing” wall made of concrete or steel to protect against a force as inevitable, and enriching, as wind. (106)

In plainer terms, it is not so much the people who regard themselves as superior beings who are the most dangerous but, rather, those who have a strong desire to regard themselves as superior beings. … People who are preoccupied with validating a grandiose self-image apparently find criticism highly upsetting and lash out against the source of it. – Baumeister and Bushman

One of Jordan’s most double-edged talents was his ability to persuade himself that he was doing the right thing and then pursue his goal with seemingly boundless energy. … He prided himself on his tolerance and liberality…but…Jordan was not reluctant to use a cannon to swat a fly. – Luther Spoehr

9. The Bitterest Thing in the World

…Jane Stanford was poisoned…on January 14, 1905. (109)

Mrs. Stanford Dies, Poisoned | San Francisco Evening Bulletin, March 1, 1905

cf. The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford, by Robert W. P. Cutler

cf. A Guide to the Study of Fishes, by David Starr Jordan

His favorite trick for catching the peskiest of fish, the ones that evade capture by darting into the cracks of tide pools? Poison. The particular variety he recommends? A dangerous and powerful substance, one he once described as “the bitterest thing in the world.” Strychnine. (123)

10. A Veritable Chamber of Horrors

Eugenics. (128)

The word was coined back in 1883 by a British scientist named Francis Galton, a famous polymath in his own right, who also happened to be the half cousin of Charles Darwin. (128)

But David Starr Jordan, good Purtan, was not a fan of breaking the law, so he began advocating for the legalization of eugenic sterilization. In 1907, a few of his friends from Bloomington successfully legalized forced eugenic sterilization in Indiana–the first such law not just in the country but in the world. Two years later, David helped get it passed in California. …the Eugenics Committee of the American Breeders Association. (131)

| I can’t believe I made it through my entire education without ever learning about our country’s leading role in the eugenics movement. But eugenics seemed as roaring a part of American culture as flappers and the Model T. This was not a fringe movement; it crossed party lines; the first five presidents of the twentieth century hailed its promise; eugenics courses were taught at prestigious universities all across the country, from Harvard to Stanford to Yale to UC Berkeley to Princeton and back again. (131)

cf. The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant

When over a decade later Hitler passed Germany’s first mandatory sterilization law, American eugenicist and doctor Joseph DeJarnette whined, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.” (132)

And then there was that key point in On the Origin of Species. That crucial point that somehow both David and before him Francis Galton had missed. What does Darwin say is the best way of building a strong species, of allowing it to endure into the future, to withstand the blows of Chaos in all her mighty forms–flood, drought, rising sea levels, fluctuating temperatures, invasions of competitors, predators, pests? (133)

| Variation. Variation in genes, and hence in behavior and physical traits. Homogeneity is a death sentence. To rid a species of its mutants and outliers is to make that species dangerously vulnerable to the elements. (133)

“Diversify your genetic portfolio” would be another way of saying it. You never know which traits could prove useful as conditions change. Darwin even goes out of his way to warn against meddling. The danger, as he sees it, is the fallibility of the human eye, our inability to comprehend complexity. Traits that might seem “abhorrent to our ideas of fitness” could actually be beneficial to a species or ecosystem, or could, in time, become beneficial as conditions change. (134)

Consider the case of the cyanobacteria. A tiny green speck in the sea, so insignificant to the human eye that for centuries we didn’t even have a name for it. Until one day int he 1980s when scientists accidentally discovered it was producing a significant portion of the oxygen we breathe. Now we revere it, this tiny greek speck, Procholorococcus marinus; we fight to protect it. This was the kind of scenario Darwin prophesied. Why he warned, so unambiguously, against attempting to rank Earth’s bounty: “Which group will prevail, no man can predict.” (134)

| And this wariness, this humility, this reverence for an ecological complexity that defies human comprehension is, in fact, a very old idea. It’s a basic philosophical concept sometimes called the “dandelion principle”: in some contexts a dandelion might be considered a weed to be culled; in others, it’s a valuable medicinal herb to be cultivated. (134)

| The eugenicists failed to consider this very simple principle of relativity. By trying to cull the gene pool of its “indispensable” variety, they were in fact foiling their very best shot of building a master race. (135)

The US government has admitted to forcefully sterilizing over 2,500 Native American women in the early 1970s. The Eugenics Board of North Carolina sought out and sterilized hundreds of black women during the 1960s and 1970s. And, mind bogglingly, approximately a third of all Puerto Rican women were sterilized by the US government between 1933 and 1968.

| The ruling that made this all possible, by the way, is still on the books. That’s right. The Supreme Court ruling has never been overturned. At our highest level, it is still written into law that if the government deems you “unfit,” officials have the authority to pull you from your home, stick a knife through your abdomen, and terminate your blood line. (139)

[via: See “Buck v. Bell”, 1927]

There it is. That same mind-set. Galton’s folly. The misbelief that poverty and suffering and criminality are a matter of the blood and can be excised from society with a knife. Eugenic ideology is anything but dead in this country; we are sticky with the stuff. (140)

11. The Ladder

How had that sweet boy, so devoted to caring for the “hidden and insignificant,” turned into a man who would so readily kill off the same? Where in his story had he changed? And why? (143)

“I just wish he had considered what Oliver Cromwell once said,” Luther Spoehr told me on the phone one June morning, as he tried to make sense of this man he had studied for so many years. “‘I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, consider that thee might be mistaken.'”
“Are you saying you wish he had more doubt?” I asked.
But he didn’t. Despite his prophet’s warning–that “science, generally, hates beliefs”–David held fast to this idea of a ladder. He clung to it, in the face of waves of counterevidence that should have eventually eroded it. (145)

| When Darwin came along, debunking the idea of a divine plan, David accepted that Earth’s creatures had come about accidentally. But he somehow found a way to preserve the idea of a hierarchy of perfection. He told himself that time, not God, had forged its shape–the slow tick of time forming fitter, more intelligent, more morally advanced forms of life. (145)

When he encountered the growing chorus of opposition to his eugenics agenda, when judges and lawyers and governors began trying to overturn eugenic laws, he wrote them off as sentimental, unscientific. When scientists began to question eugenics, to point out all its shoddy assumptions about the heritability of morality, about (145) the concept of degeneration, he questioned their courage, their commitment to the cause of bettering society. (146)

| But perhaps the most damning argument came from nature herself. Had David followed his own advice to look to nature for truth, he would have seen it. This dazzling, feathery, squawking, gurgling mound of counterevidence. Animals can outperform humans on nearly every measure supposedly associated with our superiority. There are crows that have better memories than us, chimps with better pattern-recognition skills, ants that rescue their wounded, and blood flukes with higher rates of monogamy. When you actually examine the range of life on Earth, it takes a lot of acrobatics to sort it into a single hierarchy with humans at the top. We don’t have the biggest brain or the best memory. We’re not the fastest or the strongest or the most prolific. We’re not the only ones that mate for life, that show altruism, use tolls, language. We don’t have the most copies of genes in circulation. We aren’t even the newest creation on the block. (146)

| This was what Darwin was trying so hard to get his readers to see. There is no ladder. Natura non facit saltum, he cries in his scientist’s tongue. There are no “jumps.” The rungs we see are figments of our imagination, more about “convenience” than truth. To Darwin, a parasite was not an abomination but a marvel. A Case of extraordinary adaptability. The sheer range of creatures in existence, great and small, feathered and glowing, goitered and smooth, was proof that there are endless ways of surviving and thriving in this world. (146)

| So why was David unable to see it? … Why would he protect it, this arbitrary belief about how plants and creatures should be arranged? When challenged, why would he only double down and use it to justify such violent measures? (146)

Perhaps because his belief gave him something more important than truth. (146)

To let go, at any point–from his first read of Darwin to his last push for eugenics–would have been to invite a return to vertigo. … To let go of that hierarchy would be to release a tornado of life, beetles and hawks, and bacteria and sharks, swirling high into the air, all around him, above him.
It would have been too disorienting.
It would have been Chaos.
It would have been–
–the very same vision of the world I myself had been fighting so hard not to look at ever since I was a little girl. That sense of falling off the edge of the world, plummeting alongside ants and stars, with no purpose or point. Of glimpsing the glaring, relentless truth so clear from inside the swirl of Chaos. You don’t matter. (147)

| That’s what the ladder offered David. An antidote. A foothold. The lovely, warm feeling of significance. (147)

| In that light, I could understand why he clung to it so tightly, this vision of a natural order. Why he protected it so ferociously–against morality, against reason, against truth. Even as I despised him for it, on some level I craved the very same thing. (147)

So what do you do after letting go of hope? Where do you go?

12. Dandelions

cf. Carrie Buck

I thought about the fact that had David Starr Jordan looked at my sister, he probably would have deemed her unfit. Because she gets flustered at cash registers, okay. I thought about how he likely would have deemed me unfit, too. My sadness repugnant to him, a sign of moral failure. A sulfur-breathed waste of a life. (158)

| I wanted to have some amazing retort. Some grandstandy way of telling him how wrong he was. That we matter, we matter. But as soon as I’d feel my fist lifting, my brain would tug it back. Because (158) of course, we don’t. We don’t matter. This is the cold truth of the universe. We are specks, flickering in and out of existence, with no significance to the cosmos. To ignore this truth is, oddly enough, to behave exactly like David Starr Jordan, whose ridiculous belief in his own superiority allowed him to perpetrate such unthinkable violence. No, to be clear-eyed and Good was to concede with every breath, with every step, our insignificance. To say otherwise was to sin, to lie, to march oneself off toward delusion, madness, or worse. | … I felt stuck. (159)

To some people a dandelion might look like a weed, but to others that same plant can be so much more. To an herbalist, it’s a medicine–a way of detoxifying the liver, clearing the skin, and strengthening the eyes. To a painter, it’s a pigment; to a hippie, a crown; a child, a wish. To a butterfly, it’s sustenance; to a bee, a mating bed; to an ant, one point in a vast olfactory atlas. (162)

| And so it must be with humans, with us. From the perspective of the stars or infinity or some eugenic dream of perfection, sure, one human life might not seem to matter. It might be a speck on a speck on a speck, soon gone. But that was just one of infinite perspectives. From the perspective of an apartment in Lynchburg, Virginia, that very same human could be so much more. A stand-in mother. A source of laughter. A way of surviving one’s darkest years. (162)

| This was what Darwin was trying so hard to get his readers to see: that there is never just one way of ranking nature’s organisms. To get stuck on a single hierarchy is to miss the bigger picture, the messy truth of nature, the “whole machinery of life.” The work of good science is to try to peer beyond the “convenient” lines we draw over nature. To peer beyond intuition, where something wilder lives. To know that in every organism at which you gaze, there is complexity you will never comprehend. (162)

13. Deus ex Machina

Few men have lived lives more balanced, harmonious, and fruitful. … He turned out to be one of the most versatile men America has produced, winning distinction not only as an educator, philosopher, and scientist but as an explorer, a crusader for peace and democracy, and an adviser to Presidents and foreign statesmen. The breadth of his genius can be measured by the facts that a mountain peak and a biological law were named in his honor, and he was awarded a prize of $25,000 for the best plan of education to promote international peace. It would seem no exaggeration to say that he belonged to the great tradition of the eighteenth century, personified by such giants a Franklin and Jefferson. – Edward McNall Burns

Oh, and as for that international peace prize! It turned out David would spend a great deal of his later years, in the run-up to World War I, traveling the globe to warn diplomats against the dangers of war, facing so much resistance he was once stopped mid-speech by a German general who commanded, “Genug!” (Enough!) And why? Why was he so committed to the unpopular cause of pacifism? Because, David reasoned, war depleted a nation of its best and brightest. The death of his brother, Rufus, had never left him. The highest-quality men went to fight and die, he explained, leaving the “unfit” to reproduce. “[I]f a nation sends forth the best it breeds to destruction,” he said to an audience of hundreds gathered in Philadelphia, “the second best will take their vacant places. The weak, the vicious, the unthrifty will propagate and…have the land to themselves.” In other words, he was a pacifist as a means of accomplishing his eugenicist ends. (168)

Sigh. (170)

| That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live. An uncaring world with no sense of cosmic justice encoded anywhere in its itchy, meaningless fabric. (170)

| And yet that is not the end. (170)

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. (170)

cf. Naming Nature, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

…once you accept this–that many of the fishy-looking creatures swimming in the water are more closely related to mammals than to each other–you begin to see a strange truth unfolding before your eyes. That “fish” as a sound evolutionary category is totally bunk. It would be like saying, as Yoon puts it, “all the animals with red spots on them” are in the same category, “or all the mammals that are loud.” Fine, it’s a category you can make. But it’s scientifically meaningless. It tells you nothing about evolutionary relationships. (173)

The category “fish” hides all of this. HIdes nuance. Discounts intelligence. It gerrymanders close cousins away from us, creating a false sense of separation to preserve our spot at the top of an imaginary ladder. (175)

| Now, look. If you are still hell-bent on keeping all fishy-looking things together as one scientifically valid group, you can do that. You can push those scaly lungfishes and coelacanths back into the water with the trout and the goldfish, where you think they belong. And you can even call that category “fish”! It’s just that to do that, you’d need to throw a few other creatures into the group so that every single descendant of their shared ancestor was included.
Those frogs perched there on the water’s edge? Kick ’em in.
Those birds flying high in the sky? Drown ’em.
Cows, of course, they’re in.
You mom? Absolutely. A fish.
No, the more scientifically logical thing to do is admit that fish, all this time, have been a delusion. Fish don’t exist. The category “fish” doesn’t exist. That category of creature so precious to David, the one that he turned to in times of trouble, that he dedicated his life to seeing clearly, was never there at all. (175)

…”fish,” really, when you looked straight at it, was a bum category. Slippery, sloppy, what taxonomists call “paraphyletic”–missing some of its members. (176)

“It’s counterintuitive!” Rick Winterbottom, a self-confessed “raving cladist,” told me. He knows that more than anyone. For more than three decades, he has been trying to convince his students that the natural world does not actually arrange itself into the categories we set for it. And he has been dismayed to watch how little the idea has spread outside academia. He worries that he is up against an opponent far too mighty: intuition. That people will never exchange comfort for truth.* (176)

{* Welcome to my only footnote in the book! Thanks for joining me here. Your reward is learning about the crazy factoid that there may even be an order of the natural world wired into us. Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes about the incredible medical case of J.B.R., a British patient in the 1980s who accidentally damaged this piece of neurological machinery (Yoon, 12-13) after a case of herpes caused his brain to swell. J.B.R. awoke anew, suddenly unable to properly distinguish between basic categories in the natural world. He couldn’t tell the difference between a cat and a carrot, a toadstool and a toad. It was all…Chaos. But oddly, the nonliving world was completely intact. It was only the living world that was in shambles. What his case and others (just google “category-specific semantic deficits” to find them) suggest is that there may be a kind of order-creating mechanism inside of us–that we come into the world predisposed to acquire a very specific set of beliefs about how to sort nature. Who belongs together, who belongs apart, who belongs on top. Other studies have shown how early we seem to obey these intuitive rules: at four months old we begin differentiating between cats and dogs, for example. The fact that this intuitive order may be a part of our wiring does not mean it is truth. It means it is useful. It means that it has served our species well over the generations, helped us to so successfully navigate and exploit the Chaos around us.}

His hurt, imagining him in some degree of anguish…it has a wonderful effect. It makes my skin prickle with the most forbidden of atheist fantasies. That somehow, out there, encoded in the cold math of Chaos, there is some sort of cosmic justice after all. (178)

It was a question that was beginning to haunt me. After years of researching these ideas, after covering my little room in Heather’s apartment with jagged new drawings of the tree of life, after feeling my heart swell with the thrill that the world beneath our feet was not what we thought it was, I would, in the same breath, get hit with the worry that it was all just semantics. A linguistic party trick. Fish don’t exist. Big whoop. (178)

When you give up the stars you get a universe. So what happens when you give up the fish? – Heather

I had no idea. But I knew in that moment, that was it. That waiting on the other side of the fish was something else. That letting go of the fish would result in some sort of existential exchange. (179)

If an animal can beat us at a cognitive task–like how certain bird species can remember the precise locations of thousands of seeds–they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. This and so many more tricks of language are what de Waal has termed “linguistic castration.” The way we use our tongues to disempower animals, the way we invent words to maintain our spot at the top. (182)


I wanted so badly to see past them, past the lines we draw over nature, to the land that Darwin promised was there, to the land that the taxonomists could see, the gridless place where fish don’t exist and nature is more boundless and bountiful than anything else we can imagine. (186)

There is another world, but it is in this one. – attributed to W. B. Yeats

If fish don’t exist, what else don’t we know about our world? What other truths (190) are waiting behind the lines we draw over nature? What other categories are about to cave in? Could clouds be animate? Who knows. On Neptune, it rains diamonds; it really does. Scientists figured that out just a few years ago. The longer we examine our world, the stranger it proves to be. Perhaps there will be a mother waiting inside a person deemed unfit. Perhaps there will be medicine inside a weed. Salvation inside the kind of person you had discounted. (191)

| When I give up the fish, I get, at long last, that thing I had been searching for: a mantra, a trick, a prescription for hope. I get the promise that there are good things in store. Not because I deserve them. Not because I worked for them. But because they are as much a part of Chaos as destruction and loss. Life, the flip side of death. Growth, of rot. (191)

| The best way of ensuring that you don’t miss them, these gifts, the trick that has helped me squint at the bleakness and see them more clearly, is to admit, with every breath, that you have no idea what you are looking at. To examine each object in the avalanche of Chaos with curiosity, with doubt. Is this storm a bummer? Maybe it’s a chance to get the streets to yourself, to be licked by raindrops, to reset. Is this party as boring as I assume it will be? Maybe there will be a friend waiting, with a cigarette in her mouth, by the back door of the dance floor, who will laugh with you for years to come, who will transmute your shame to belonging. (191)

| I am not saying I’m always so good at looking at the world in this way. I cling to my certainty–teddy bear that it is–and my grudges stay intact; my fear stays charged, the earth flat. But then I read a news article about, say, a new organ discovered int eh human body called the “interstitium.” There all along but somehow missed by millennia of humans. And the world cracks open a bit. I am reminded to do as Darwin did: to wonder about the reality waiting (191) behind our assumptions. Perhaps that heartbreak will prove to be a gift, the hard edge off which you reluctantly bounce to find a better match. Perhaps even your dreams need examining. Perhaps even your hope…needs some doubt. (192)

Scientists have discovered, it’s true, that employing positive illusions will help you achieve your goals. But I have slowly come to believe that far better things await outside of the tunnel vision of your goals. (193)

| When I give up the fish, I get a skeleton key. A fish-shaped skeleton key that pops the grid of rules off this world and lets you step through to a wilder place. The other world within this one. The gridless place out the window where fish don’t exist and diamonds rain from the sky and each and every dandelion is reverberating with possibility. (193)

| To turn the key all you have to do…is stay wary of words. … Consider the word “order” itself. It comes from the Latin (193) ordinmen, to describe a row of threads sitting neatly in a loom. In time, it was extended as a metaphor to describe the way that people sit neatly under the rule of a king, general, or president. … I have come to believe that it is our life’s work to tear down this order, to keep tugging at it, trying to unravel it, to set free the organisms trapped underneath. That it is our life’s work to mistrust our measures. Especially those about moral and mental standing. To remember that behind every ruler there is a Ruler. To remember that a category is at best a proxy; at worst, a shackle. (194)

This ladder, it is still alive. This ladder, it is a dangerous fiction. (194)

Fish don’t exist. A fish-shaped sledgehammer to split it down. (194)

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