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Brooke Gladstone: In reviewing the nation's continuing effort to take stock of the least lovely bits of our history and the so-called champions that enabled some of the ugly bits. We turn briefly to Stanford University, which recently announced it would be renaming Jordan Hall, named for David Starr Jordan noted, natural historian ichthyologist and Sanford's founding president pack in 1891. Stanford also plans to relocate a statue of Jordan's mentor Louis Agassiz from the building's facade. Jordan's name is also coming off several sites at Indiana University, where he also served as president. Who is this long heralded lately demoted David Starr Jordan?
He was among many other things, a great obsession of Lulu Miller, co-host of Radiolab, and author of the book Why Fish Don't Exist. Her book traces the history of Jordan and her own obsession with him as a supreme taxonomist, who sought determined lead to order the natural world, at least in part by finding and naming its fish and later notoriously by ranking its people. Lulu Miller was very much in need of some sense of natural order to fend off the sense of chaos in her own life. That's what first drew her to Starr; his unstoppable drive to fend off his home demons by ordering the world even when his own mother of stern and sturdy English Puritan stock demeaned him for it.
Lulu Miller: He is a delicious person to write about because there's things that he does, especially when he's a kid that just make you fall in love with him. When he gets bullied he starts doing things alone like trying to complete the task of clasping his hands and jump through them. He's just this sweet loner.
Brooke: His puritan parents, especially his mother, disapproved of his obsessions and his massive collections.
Lulu: He woke into the world. He had all these questions about what he saw around him and so first he started putting names to every star in the sky. He moved on to flowers and he started pinning them to the walls and writing their scientific names underneath them, making topographical maps of every place around him. At one point his mom just threw them away.
Brooke: His entire childhood was bound up in this stuff.
Lulu: Much sweaty, sweet, careful labor and she just thought, this is a waste of time. He should be out on the farm. They were struggling to make ends meet. She told them to "find something more relevant to do with his time." According to his accounts taxonomy had had its run. Carl Linnaeus, the famous forefather of taxonomy had published his Systema Naturae, which was proposed to be this map of all life properly arranged about a hundred years before. There was this sense that the world was known. We didn't need to look at it anymore.
His neighbors called him shiftless and a waster of time, collecting bad rap. As he grew older, he just still loved doing it. His brother died when he was pretty young and he had been very close with him and right after that moment, he just goes back to drawing. His journals explode with color. He's drawing ivy, he's drawing carrots, he's drawing pine branches, anything he can get his hands on.
Brooke: Your theory is that he was trying to impose order on chaos?
Lulu: Yes. He talks about this urge. Even if he can't control the world, at least he had naming. If he could just order the world, there was some sense of agency. I don't want to go overly into like pathologizing the very human impulse to collect and know our world, but there are some people who've studied obsessive collectors. Often the habit will kick into after some major deprivation or tragedy or trauma. Each acquisition floods you with this sense of fantasized omnipotence is how this one guy, Warner Muensterberger, puts it that you can become addicted to it.
Brooke: In his early 20s. He is a perpetual student. He's also an educator. He learns about a camp for young natural historians on Island off of Massachusetts called Penekese.
Lulu: It's this tiny little horseshoe-shaped island an hour's ride away from the coast, just horizon on every side of you. Louis Agassiz, the very famous Swiss geologist, who by this point I was teaching at Harvard, decided that the way that Harvard professors were teaching science was all wrong. They wanted their students to learn to memorize beliefs out of books and he thought that beliefs were roadblocks. Once you started to believe the beliefs-
Brooke: You ceased to observe.
Lulu: Yes, you would cease to observe. He started this camp where he could train the future scientists of America and the right way to do science, which is climbing around in nature, getting dirty, looking at things through microscopes. That first summer he put out a call for applications, David Starr Jordan was miserable out at this college in the Midwest. He was advised not to let his students touch microscopes.
He was chastised for teaching the ice age theory that there had been a time when the earth was covered in ice and Louis Agassiz was the guy who discovered it, blah, blah, blah. He applies to this camp, gets in. He's one of 50 students, men and women all interested in taxonomy spends this blissed-out summer. He sees phosphorescence for the first time. He's 22 years old and it's the first time he sees the ocean.
Brooke: The impact of Louie Agassiz can't be underrated. You wrote about a breakfast benediction that he gave. It went like this:
"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"
Lulu: Agassiz literally thought that every single species was a thought of God and that the work of taxonomy was to arrange those thoughts in their proper order and discover the divine plan of God. What the divine plan meant was this intricate communication of God's values and how to be in the world and possibly if you read it right, the path to further ascension. Agassiz called the work of taxonomy "missionary work of the highest order". David writes about that morning. He said it was this transformational moment in his life because suddenly he had a response to all the people who said that his hobby was pointless.
Brooke: He traveled the globe to quote, discover new species of fish, catalog them, name them.
Lulu: Yes. He starts collecting for the Smithsonian. He gets promotions. He becomes the president of Indiana University. He would throw dynamite into the water to unearth fish. He would use harpoons, any method he could think of, and poison. In tide pools, he came up with this device-
Brooke: Strychnine, which plays a role later in his story, but we might not get to that. The possibility that he murdered the head of Stanford, but never mind. You became enamored with the idea of David Starr Jordan as a symbol of determination in the face of chaos. He lost his collection multiple times over the course of his life, especially during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 where it was stored at Stanford. A whole system of order obliterated and he and his team are credited with discovering a fifth of the fish species that were then known.
Lulu: Yes. This first collection was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. It almost feels like a myth. He thinks he can order the world, chaos says, "Can you?" He built it back up, it takes almost 30 years and an earthquake comes and he loses thousands of fish. They're separated from their names and it was this moment where he did this gesture. This gesture is what pulled me into his tail. I didn't even know who he was yet but I heard this anecdote and I know it is almost embarrassingly arcane, why did this possess your life for 10 years? Why did you write a book about this guy?
But this was the moment. He took the fish off the ground and he started the practice of tying the label to the fish, stitching them right into the flesh, as if to say, "Nature, no matter what you throw at me, I can own you." I thought this is such a metaphor for our species and for our need to know the world and possess it, the refusal to back down from these increasingly clear messages that chaos reigns, that we live in a world that we cannot control.
Brooke: When you learned darker and darker things about how he conducted his life, he had a shield of optimism, which sounds like something great, but when you break it down, he was really good about lying to himself.
Lulu: [chuckles] Yes. A colleague of his said, "No matter how bad the day, he could always be found a humming a tune down the arcade," but what is that shield comprised of? One of the key ingredients is to believe you're a little better than you actually are. Psychologists have studied this. They call it positive illusions and it's this idea that if we can lie to ourselves a little bit, you actually see profound benefits in mental health, even in relationships. It's like a matter of how much delusion and there is clearly a slippery slope where you do get social punishment for being too diluted about yourself or your abilities but there is this weird spot if you lie a little, it serves you really well.
Brooke: Right, but he was making judgments that he wasn't capable of making, and like his mentor, Louis Agassiz, he ranked what he found. Like his mentor, he believed bad habits, so to speak, could cause species to devolve, whether in mollusks or in man.
Lulu: Yes. When Darwin came along, David Starr Jordan did do away with the idea that there was a divine plan. He did let go of God, but he still believed there was a somewhat divine hierarchy carved by time, that more quote "complex", if such a thing as even measurable, meant more evolved and better as well.
Brooke: Darwin never did that. He never ranked species from complex and closer to God to degenerate intrinsically evil.
Lulu: Yes, Darwin has his sins and he's complicated, but what really shocked me reading On the Origin of Species and rereading it and reading it with a pen was just how clearly he warns against ranking. He says that hierarchies and even categories at all, even edges in nature, and this is what really blew my mind, that those are fabrication of the human mind. They're superimposition. They're a proxy.
Brooke: Edges. What do you mean by edges?
Lulu: That there are not hard lines even between species. One of the things he really hammers, this gets a little technical, but it's cool, one of the things that taxonomists say is that two different species can't create fertile offspring and he just shows time and time again, these examples where actually two different supposedly species do create fertile offspring. There aren't the hard lines around species or around genera or going further up the tree, phylum even, that that is a human way of parsing the world to feel safer in it.
Brooke: Darwin's disinclination to put species in boxes, and especially to rank them did not communicate to Starr and a turning point for him was when he went to Aosta, a sanctuary city in Italy, a place where, for centuries, the Catholic Church had provided shelter and food to people who had been rejected by their families because of their disabilities.
Lulu: You might see beauty in that town. Here's the place where people have safe harbor and are given the tools to flourish or what David saw, and he went three times, he called it "a veritable chamber of horrors", people drooling or coming up to him and begging. He said, "This is a subspecies of man and this is where the whole human race is going if we don't take action." He becomes one of the earliest embraces of eugenics.
Brooke: He thought that the people of Aosta were literally degenerating into a new species of man and he called this process "animal pauperism".
Lulu: Yes, that "laziness", basically, the bad habits, the bad behaviors can cause not just a person but a species to reverse evolve, to slide down that ladder.
Brooke: He didn't believe in nurture much at all. It was all about nature for him.
Lulu: He actively, in some of his books, he mocks education. He says, "Education can never replace heredity," and he begins to believe that all kinds of traits are linked to the blood, criminality, poverty, illiteracy, what they call feeble-mindedness, that we could reduce all kinds of things by not allowing certain people to continue to live.
Brooke: Go over his efforts to enforce a better human race.
Lulu: Yes, the simplest thought was that you could actually kill people. He didn't think that was humane. He suggested the idea of sterilization, single out people he called "unfit". Again, you see him employing scientific jargon to make his beliefs sound like a biological reality, but he starts advocating for these ideas as a great way to heal society into his lectures at Stanford. He talks to this really wealthy widow, Mrs. Herrmann, and gets her to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to start the Eugenics Record Office, which will become a huge player in claiming certain people are unfit based on their criminal records or their hospital records, things like that. He joins political organizations, he's a huge pusher for these ideas, and starting in 1907, the first eugenics law is passed in his one-time stomping ground of Indiana.
Brooke: This law isn't just the first in the country, it's the first in the world.
Lulu: There is resistance. Judges or governors who strike down their states attempted eugenics law and there are activists and even scientists calling the ideas behind eugenics "rot", but it did sweep the country. There were these eugenics fairs at small-town festivals where they would have a tent where there'd be competitions among the babies who were weighed and measured like pumpkins and there'd be the best babies or the fittest families.
Brooke: It was so gross.
Lulu: It was so gross.
Brooke: I was just wondering if this is a good time to mention Hitler.
Lulu: Yes. The American movement predated Hitler's movement, where some of the early posters to pass sterilization in Germany said, "We do not stand alone," and there was a picture of the American flag. Americans had sterilized thousands of people and then, in 1933, Germany passed the law to allow the sterilization of what would eventually become hundreds of thousands of people. An American eugenicist, Joseph DeJarnette said, "The Germans are beating us at our own game."
I think these ideas arise from different places. Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in England and, of course, this idea of bettering a herd on your farm, that has been around for a long time. These ideas are coming up from all over, but we were the first to legalize it in the world and to make real headway on these ideas that certain people in society should not be allowed to live. A lot of these people, Agassiz, David Starr Jordan, DeJarnette, they're all over buildings, they've statues of them up at academic institutions and these were people really actively pushing for the genetic death of certain kinds of people.
Brooke: Jordan becomes a cautionary tale about where the drive to impose order on the world can take us. One of the big reveals in your book comes in the title, Fish Don't Exist. Tell me what you meant by that?
Lulu: This is this amazing revelation in the biological community that taxonomists realized in about the '80s and it goes back to the Darwin thing, that actually the edges in nature are not there. This group of scientists called cladists came along and--
Brooke: Before you can input, why are they called cladists?
Lulu: Clades is Greek for branch, and it is the branches of the tree of life that they are interested in looking at accurately, not based on this human-centric sense of what goes together. You could lump together anything that has stripes, then there'd be zebrafish and zebra and those little furry caterpillars, but that is not a scientifically meaningful category of creatures if you're trying to group things in terms of how they're related.
This is the whole puzzle of taxonomy, how do you decide who is closest to whom? Around the '80s, the cladists kind of stumbled across this idea that certain characteristics give you better clues. They'd say, we've got to not be distracted by things like skin or fur, we have to look deeper at the bone structure and the organs. They would say, I'm going to hold up an image of a cow, a salmon, and a lungfish, lungfish looks like a pretty fishy fish, scaly, tail, which of these two things are most closely related?
Inevitably a biology student would raise their hand and say the salmon and the lungfish, they're both fish. They swim in water. That's my guess. Then slowly, the cladists would reveal why this isn't true and they'd say, well look, both the lungfish and the cow have lungs. They both have this thing called an epiglottis, which is this little flap of skin that goes over the throat that kind of came along later in time. They have a more similarly structured heart. You can't deny that actually a cow and a lungfish are more closely related to one another than a lungfish and a salmon.
What that means is that, okay, if you want to keep fish together, you'd have to include a cow in there and a human and a bird. You could keep all fish together, but then it's more like the word vertebrate, like it's so broad that actually the more scientifically sound thing to do is admit that fish is not a legitimate grouping of creatures that aren't actually close and you can see it's very naturally carved out by the water.
We just think they have these tails and they have these fins and so they're all fish, but that is obscuring a greater truth, that there are things down there that are more closely related to us than to one another. I learned this concept as I was researching Jordan and it completely blew my mind. It was this like violently counter-intuitive thought. I have a sense that it matters, that this isn't just a nerdy, linguistic party trick, Fish Don't Exist. Yes, they do.
Then I set out to try to understand that I titled the book that I know people get annoyed, they roll their eyes, Fish Don't Exist but my sincere hope is that you emerge from this story, not only understanding and hopefully believing that idea, but carrying it around with you as a reminder to have more doubt in all categories around you.
Brooke: One dismaying conclusion you came to, dismaying and wonderful is that if you're a cladist, you are far less inclined to other creatures, I'm using other as a verb there, and especially you talk about fish, some of whom have memory senses of humor, pescatarians are out of luck.
Lulu Miller: I think it's about having a real vibrant curiosity about anything, about any category you're making, whether it's in fish or whether it's in a type of student that you're not accepting to your institution, these eugenic sterilization laws that just kind of soberly allowed for the violent cutting off of your chance to carry on. Just because we say this word unfit that we think we have a grasp on, and there are still laws on the books that now use slightly different terms like incompetent or unable to give informed consent or lacks mental capacity that allow for the mandatory sterilization of people.
Are we so sure we're okay about that? Who is hiding under that language? Why Fish Don't Exist? Is this absurd French surrealist painting. This is not a pipe kind of thing, but my hope is that what that does is to remind you that we are bad at carving up our world. The work of being a good human is to keep real vigilant curiosity about the creatures trapped underneath our categories.
Brooke: Even harder it seems to accomplish is to let go of your intuition. You wrote that seeing the world or trying to without intuition, we can't obviously let it all go, was a peculiarly marvelous feeling.
Lulu: Yes, and it's hard. What do we have in the dark but our intuition to guide us, I suck at it. Most days, most moments.
Brooke: Can you find that place in the end of the book or one of them where you write about going into nature and being really conscious of not doing what we're all wired to do?
Lulu: Let me find one. How about this? This is in the epilogue. "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 of the window where Fish Don't Exist and diamonds rain from the sky, and each and every dandelion is reverberating with possibility. To turn that key all you have to do is stay wary of words. If fish don't exist, what else do we have wrong?
Brooke: Despite the fact that science stands with cladists with regard to the existence of fish, nobody wants to go there. It is just not catching on. Obviously, intuition is just implacably strong, but could you tell me some of the marbles you encountered when you are able to let it go? You're describing a book, a lifelong existential element, and suppressing that intuition seemed to be a means of dealing with it.
Lulu: Yes. I do think with intuition comes a certainty of, you know what's good for you, you know what you're bad at. You know what's scary, all these things. When you can just suppress it a little and say maybe, but let's go investigate. I have continued to be wowed by surprises and things that existed outside of my intuition or my certainty. From one of the biggest marvels was meeting my now wife and still thinking, "She's younger than me. She's shorter than me. She's a girl. That's not what keeps me safe.
That's not what is a mate. These kinds of silly criteria took a second to let go of. It was mostly guided by how freaking delightful she is to be around and how fun she makes the world but I think there was a little bit of all this research in there because I met her toward the end of writing this. I think she was this huge clear gift of what you can welcome in when you do that. That's an obvious one but then even just little things."
Brooke: The past several months have offered lots of chances to let go of preconceived notions of what's what. You started to see order its self as a kind of violence?
Lulu: The word itself, order or denim comes from the Latin for loom, which is arranging of threads neatly in a loom. Then it became to be used metaphorically as the way that people sit under the ranks of a King or an army general. Order itself, it is based on the discounting of certain qualities within people to make them fit in this unnatural form on the loom. I think that with all the rebellion and the unrest, it's like people who have been trapped for so long under this violent order and no one has been listening.
I was spat out near the top of this social hierarchy. I'm queer so knock me down a little, but I'm a white woman, I'm near the top and our world is so disorienting and sure that can feel frightening, but it is this moment for me. I just keep thinking about the concept of order as this violent structure and things have to change.
Brooke: What is the most revelatory-order-overthrowing thing that you learned about a fish?
Lulu Miller: They've done these studies that show that they will actively seek out the soothing of either the touch of another fish or sometimes even the touch of a human hand that they've grown comfortable with and that like us when they are afraid, when they are in some kind of physical pain, there is this strange power in being held and it's not some whizz banging, if they can memorize 10,000 places which they can also do, they have incredible cognitive skills, but there was something so there's more similarity down there.
There's more difference too, but just that there's more nuance. There are more unexpected qualities down there. That's the one for some reason that being with another being helps them.
Brooke: Wow. Lulu, thank you so much. Lulu Miller is co-host of RadioLab and author of the book Why Fish Don't Exist. Thanks for listening to the podcast. Check out the big broadcast posted Friday around dinner time and guess what, the accent is on hilarity when On The Media tries its hand at live coverage. Some coverage anyway, but mostly just keeping you company during election night, November 3rd. Want to join us? Save the date. Of course, you will.
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