Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller


What a treat this book turned out to be. I have known Lulu and Grace slightly for several years, feeling a great warmth for them, so there was no question about buying the book. Then I learned the book is in part a biography of David Starr Jordan, a name I knew from having spent the 1970s in Bloomington, Indiana. He had been president of Indiana University, so a street, a building, and a creek are named after him. The creek is called Jordan River, but really, it’s a tiny tributary of Clear Creek.

What I love about this book is the number of ideas that I want to remember. That means that I will have a long post hinting at the concepts that I cannot possibly make as clear as Lulu does, so I suggest buying the book.

Lulu begins by telling us about David Starr Jordan’s background. He was always interested in the natural world and was enchanted with Louis Agassiz’s belief that understanding the hierarchy in nature would bring understanding of God’s plan for his creation, providing a moral code. He believed in taxonomy. Lulu explains,

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.

Jordan taught at various schools, became president at Indiana University (1885-1891), and then became the first president of Stanford University. He classified fish with amazing zeal, finding thousands of previously unidentified fish. Lulu was particularly drawn to his ability to overcome adversity:  a fire caused by a lightning strike at IU and the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco destroyed countless specimens, but he was undaunted by those setbacks. Having read the Wikipedia entry about Jordan, I began to get nervous that Jordan’s hand in popularizing eugenics in the US was going to be ignored. I shouldn’t have worried.

Though Jordan was an admirer of Darwin, he was able to ignore that man’s understanding that the lines between the species was not a hard one, that there was great variety in creatures within the traditionally defined species. Jordan declared some species were “degenerate,” that parasites, for example, would be a step down on the evolutionary scale. Taxonomy as moral code.

He came to believe that the human race could be made better, perhaps perfected, if certain traits were bred out of it. And he and other eugenicists thought that criminality and immorality were some those traits. It’s distressing how fully those concepts were embraced in this country; they became the law of the land after a Supreme Court decision allowed the forced sterilization of a Virginia woman in 1927.

The belief that breeding out certain traits will improve the species was not one that Darwin believed. He saw diversity as a great strength; what is needed for survival cannot be predicted. As Lulu says,

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? 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. In nearly every chapter of Origin, Darwin hails the power of “Variation.”

Darwin believed there is never one single way to rank 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.’” Which brings us to the “why fish don’t exist” concept. In the 1980s taxonomists concluded that while birds, mammals, and amphibians exist as categories of creatures, fish do not. This grew out of the work of a group of scientists called “cladists” who were looking for the true branches of the evolutionary tree (branch in Greek is klados).

They use a different way of determining which creatures were the “evolutionary offspring” of which. This revealed surprises, such as, “as much as a bat might look like a winged rodent, it’s actually more closely related to camels. Or that whales are actually ungulates ( the family to which deer belong )!”  The lungfish and cows have organs that allow them to breath and their hearts are more alike than you expect. And it turns out that many creatures that have scales and live in water have features make them related to mammals. So, no fish.

What a satisfying comeuppance for this misguided ichthyologist.

What I have not written about is the warmth and love that appears throughout this book. It’s a rare treat to read a book that brings so many exhilarating new ideas at the same time it reinforces the fundamental truths of the importance of love and respect.

Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 240 pages (I read it on kindle). Available at the public library (wow!) and from Amazon.

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