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

7-minute read

Two things, or so the joke goes, are sure in life: death and taxes. Entropy, that existential bummer*, is another candidate for that list. Why Fish Don’t Exist sees science reporter Lulu Miller grapple with the question of how to find meaning in a world where “there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics” (p. 3), to quote her biochemist father. She does so by examining the life of fish taxonomist David Starr Jordan who saw his life’s work destroyed—twice—and responded by rebuilding it bigger and better. But is Jordan a suitable role model? In vivid prose that jumps off the page, Miller attempts to come to terms with his complex character, tracing the heights to which confidence can lift you, but also the depths to which it can plunge you.

Why Fish Don't Exist

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, written by Lulu Miller, published by Simon & Schuster in April 2019 (hardback, 225 pages)

David Starr Jordan (1851–1931) was possessed from a young age by the urge to understand and name the diversity of nature. After training under the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz, he became an ichthyologist, made huge contributions to fish taxonomy, and would in time become the founding president of Stanford University. When his research collection of ethanol-pickled fish was destroyed in a fire in 1883, he rebuilt it even bigger. Only to have the 1906 San Francisco earthquake tear it all asunder again. It shattered hundreds of glass jars and scattered the included name tags—a taxonomist’s nightmare. “In some terrible act of Genesis in reverse, his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a heaping mass of the unknown” (p. 4). His response? Start over, this time stitching the name tags directly to the fish with needle and thread.

Miller contrasts Jordan’s life story with her own struggles growing up. How she felt beaten down by her father’s take on life: “There is no point. There is no God […] There is no afterlife. No destiny. No plan […] These are all things people dream up to comfort themselves against the scary feeling that none of this matters […]” (p. 34). How she suffered seeing her sister being bullied to the point of dropping out of high school. How she harmed herself and attempted suicide. I admit that I found this part of the book hard as I struggled to sympathise with her—her father’s grim attitude resonates much more with me. Your mileage with this may vary, but, regardless, it is not the main thread of this book.

Instead, she is engrossed with Jordan’s life story upon hearing about it, dissecting it for lessons. How can someone find the strength to keep going in a universe that so clearly does not care for the order we try to impose upon it? Even to spit in the face of adversity and double down? Why Fish Don’t Exist initially casts Jordan as a hero, a role model to aspire to. But is he really? The second part of the book takes an unexpectedly dark turn.

Why Fish Don’t Exist initially casts Jordan as a hero, a role model to aspire to. But is he really? The second part of the book takes an unexpectedly dark turn.”

Miller briefly looks into the psychology behind (over)confidence. How self-deception, when administered in moderation, can enhance your life. Jordan certainly did not lack these qualities, though they backfired in later years. First, there was his patron, Jane Stanford, who very likely died of poisoning. Jordan publicly changed the story to one of a simple heart attack, undermining professional medical opinion as he went. Stanford was about to fire him from his position as president over misconduct, and Miller and others consider him a likely suspect.

Darker still is that later in life Jordan became a very vocal spokesperson for eugenics.

Ho boy did I not see that coming.

In what is surely the most harrowing part of this book, Miller delves into the history of eugenics in the US and speaks to some of the survivors. She traces Jordan’s beliefs to his mentor, Agassiz, who was convinced that life’s diversity hid a divine hierarchy: the Scala Naturae with humans at the top as Creation’s crowning achievement. To reveal this order was, according to Agassiz, “missionary work of the highest order” (p. 28). This idea, contends Miller, transformed Jordan’s childish hobby of naming nature, filling him “with a burst of purpose that sailed him through life, winning him jobs, awards, wives, children, presidencies” (p. 144). Faced with human imperfections, his belief in a natural order was so unwavering that he wielded it “like a blade, convincing people that sterilization was the soundest way—the only way—of saving the human race” (p. 145).

Jordan emerges as a complicated character, both virtuous and sinful. Yet, that second part seems to have largely been forgotten. To this day, writes Miller, “his legacy as the swashbuckling giant of fish discovery remains untarnished” before she somberly concludes that “this is the world in which we live. An uncaring world with no sense of cosmic justice” (p. 170).

“Jordan emerges as a complicated character, both virtuous and sinful. Yet, that second part seems to have largely been forgotten […] “his legacy as the swashbuckling giant of fish discovery remains untarnished“.”

In the end, Miller tries to derive some joy from the fact that, as the book’s title indicates, the group to which Jordan devoted his life does not exist—from a taxonomical perspective, that is. Fish are a paraphyletic group, meaning a group consisting of the last common ancestor and some, but not all, of its descendants. In this case, we exclude all the other vertebrate groups that descended from the ancestors of fish. From a cladistical standpoint, such group names are invalid—linguistic crutches used in day-to-day language. But even that irony brings little calm to Miller’s troubled mind: “Did it matter, in any broader sense, to anyone whose job is not arranging specimens in jars, that fish, as a category, does not exist? It was a question that was beginning to haunt me.” (p. 178).

As much as Miller’s mindset might differ from mine, it is the driving force behind her brilliant writing here. She engages with her protagonist with a fury that is impressive to behold. In vivid prose that is accompanied by beautiful artwork from Kate Samworth, she paints unforgettable scenes. When the universe uncaringly flexes its muscles and the San Francisco earthquake shatters Jordan’s fish collection? “the bastard, the wonderful bastard, takes out his sewing needle and plunges it straight into our ruler’s throat” (p. 78). When she recoils at his later fall from grace? “He drank the eugenics Kool-Aid hard and fast. He began hallucinating evidence of heritable personality traits everywhere” (p. 129). When she kicks over Agassiz’s Scala Naturae? “The most damning argument came from nature herself […] This dazzling, feathery, squawking, gurgling mound of counterevidence. Animals can outperform humans on nearly every measure supposedly associated with our superiority.” (p. 146).

In just under two hundred pages, Miller interrogates Jordan’s life and manages to make me laugh and cringe, to entrance and horrify me. What starts as a biography of sorts—a homage to an unflappable scientist—turns into a cautionary tale. The unexpected twists by which it arrives there are so engrossing that I read this book in a single sitting.

*I liberally borrow here the words of Jason Silva.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Why Fish Don’t Exist

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:


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