Carl Zimmer Looks at the Science of Moby-Dick

Moby Dick

Carl Zimmer, the superb science writer whose books include At the Water’s Edge and Parasite Rex, recently reprinted his article about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in Medium magazine. Zimmer discusses Melville’s satirical and idiosyncratic approach to the systematic study of sea mammals and knowledge in general.

Will He Perish?

I’m a big fan of Melville’s writing, and I’ve always been impressed that high school students in the USA are still made to read a book as weird as this. It’s tragic that Melville, who started his writing career as a very popular and successful author of travel adventure books, effectively ended it with Moby-Dick. In 1851, the world wasn’t quite ready for a visionary satire about whaling; the only person who appreciated the book was the one to whom Melville dedicated it (his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne), and it netted the author just over five hundred dollars.

A century and a half later, Carl Zimmer wrote At the Water’s Edge, an examination of how scientists came to understand the evolution of sea mammals that was as sober and scholarly as Melville’s work was witty and extravagant. In his article, he talks about the historical and intellectual context of Melville’s work:

Naturalists in the early 1800s were just becoming acquainted with the world’s biodiversity, and they were overwhelmed by the animals they encountered — the gorilla in Africa, the duck-billed platypus in Australia, the lungfish in Brazil.

Those creatures also put a strain on the elegant framework that European naturalists had erected during the scientific revolution. In that framework, nature was a Great Chain of Being from lower to higher forms, with humans at the peak of nature’s divinely appointed order. In the mid-1700s, Carol Linneaus neatly sorted species into orders and classes, arguing that this very neatness was a sign of God’s handiwork. When naturalists looked closely at the anatomy of any particular species, they perceived a complexity of parts as exquisitely meshed with one another as the springs and gears of a clock. Here was another way to appreciate the divine order of the natural world — what came to be known as natural theology.

Melville satirized the presumption of this divine order. His narrator, the eccentric Ishmael, even denies the contemporary classification of the whale and insists on calling it a fish throughout the book. His reasoning is derived from what he considers expert dissent from the Linneaean orthodoxy:

The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: “On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,” and finally, “ex lege naturae jure meritoque.” I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.

Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales

Melville characterized the human urge to create grand and elegant systems as nothing more than complacent folly, the tendency to deny the monstrous and obscure truths about Nature. Ishmael’s notoriously verbose examinations of whale taxonomy and anatomy are meant to acknowledge the fearsome and unknowable aspects of these gargantuan creatures as well as the limits of human understanding: I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty. He even warns against painting pictures of the whale, because the only way the creature can be legitimately seen is by undertaking the risk of going whaling oneself.

Humanity’s greed and curiosity, according to Melville, are fatal to the whale. In the mid-nineteenth century, whale oil literally fueled the lights of civilization; Ishmael’s constant anatomization of the whale, no less than Ahab’s murderous quest, illustrates the drive for dominance and control that scientific inquiry represents.

God’s Great, Unflattering Laureate, Nature

Zimmer then discusses the work of Darwin, published only a decade after Moby-Dick, in which the British naturalist (after enduring a risky sea voyage of his own) described the natural processes and events that gave rise to the monstrous forms about which Melville waxed so lyrical. Moby-Dick may have made natural theology seem presumptuous; The Origin of Species rendered it obsolete.

What we know about the history of sea mammals derives from paleontology, genetics, and various other disciplines. I highly recommend At the Water’s Edge for readers interested in an fascinating overview of the research that constitutes our understanding of how aquatic animals first made it onto land and how some mammals made it back.

A Vast Practical Joke

I also recommend people read Zimmer’s article on Melville. For all his triumphalism about humanity’s solving the mystery of cetacean evolution, Zimmer at least admits, “We must remain humble about our powers to make sense of the universe…All-encompassing theories never lose their seductive appeal, even when we have little evidence with which to build them.”

Melville’s dismay at the destructive hubris of humanity and our self-serving rationality is never more evident than when he has Ahab talking to the severed head of the sperm whale, desperate for knowledge that was not meant for him:

“Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest.”

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  • Timothy Johnson

    “Melville’s dismay…is never more evident” than in that passage? Really? The two issues you name have nothing to do with that passage. Didst thou plucketh Melville’s skull from the deep and receive this evidence? Or are you merely surmising, sir?

  • Carl Zimmer and I may be such Melville fans that it’s hard for us to be objective. The killjoys at the Huffington Post, however, has no such qualms about pointing out 5 Scientific Inaccuracies You Didn’t Know Were In ‘Moby-Dick’.

  • Dan Hunter

    I suggest reading Melville’s comments on why the whale is a fish and understanding he is giving you a whaler’s definition of a whale.
    There is a similar thing with miners, prospectors, mineralogists, geologists and the definition of what a mineral is. For a miner or prospector a mineral is almost anything in the ground that can be dug up and sold for a profit. For a geologist or minralogist a mineral would be “A naturally occurring, inorganic, solid, crystalline substance which has a fixed structure and a chemical composition which is either fixed or which may vary within certain defined limits.”
    A mineralogist would not think of gravel or oil as minerals, but a miner would think of them as very valuable minerals.

    Ishmael’s description of a whale as a “spouting fish with a horizontal tail” is not meant to deny that they were warm blooded air breathing mammals. His point (Melville’s) is that such scientific classifications are as useless to an actual whaler as a geologist’s definition of a mineral is to a miner.