BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. So, Liliana Mason tells us that a rift in either party could present us with what might be a welcome lack of clarity. Fuzzier lines drawn between us might actually allow us the space we need to engage in a more constructive politics. It's a bit counterintuitive, I know. Give up the order created by labels and categories? Embrace chaos and see what good might arise from the mess? Radiolab co-host Lulu Miller was struggling to impose order on the chaos in her own life when she became obsessed with a 19th century taxonomist and natural historian who was himself obsessed with categorizing and ordering the world. His name was David Starr Jordan. Earlier this month, Stanford University, where Jordan served as founding president, announced it would be taking his name off of campus spaces. It's also coming off of several sites at Indiana University, where he also served as president. So who is this long heralded, lately demoted, David Starr Jordan. He is, among many other things, the subject of Miller's new book, Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss and the Hidden Order of Life.
LULU MILLER He is a delicious person to write about because there are 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. So, like he's just a sweet loner.
BROOKE GLADSTONE His Puritan parents, especially his mother, disapproved of his obsessions and his massive collections.
LULU MILLER Yeah, he sort of 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. And at one point, his mom just threw them away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE His entire childhood was bound up in this stuff.
LULU MILLER So 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, you know, ends meet and she told him to, quote, find something more relevant to do with his time. According to his accounts, taxonomy had sort of had its run. Carl Linnaeus, the famous forefather of taxonomy, had published his Systema on 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 got sort of a bad rap, and 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. And his journals explode with color. He's drawing ivy. He's drawing carrots. He's drawing pine branches like anything he can get his hands on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your theory is that he was trying to impose order on chaos.
LULU MILLER Yeah, 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 gear after some sort of major deprivation or tragedy or trauma. Each acquisition floods you with this sense of fantasized omnipotence. Is how this one guy, Werner Muensterberger, puts it that you can kind of become addicted to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In his early 20s, he is a perpetual student, he's also an educator. He learns about a sort of camp for young natural historians, an island off of Massachusetts called Penikese.
LULU MILLER Yeah, it's this tiny, little horse shoe 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 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, because once you started to believe the beliefs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You cease to observe.
LULU MILLER Yeah, you would cease to observe. And so he started this camp where he could train the future scientists of America in the right way to do science, which is climbing around in nature, getting dirty, looking at things through microscopes. And 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. So 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 GLADSTONE And the impact of Louis 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. As with fingers of the blind, we are groping here to find what the hieroglyphics mean of the unseen in the scene."
LULU MILLER 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. And 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. And so 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 GLADSTONE He traveled the globe to, quote, discover a new species of fish, catalog them, name them.
LULU MILLER Yeah. He starts collecting for the Smithsonian, he gets promotions, he becomes the president of Indiana University. He'd throw dynamite into the water to unearth fish. He would use harpoons like any method he could think of and poison. He would in tide pools, he came up with this device,.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Strychnine, which plays a role later in his story, but we might not get to that. The possibility that he murdered the the head of Stanford, but never mind, you became enamored with the idea of David Starr Jordan as a as a symbol of determination.
LULU MILLER Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE 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. It was stored at Stanford, a whole of system of order, obliterated. And he and his team are credited with discovering a fifth of the fish species that were then known.
LULU MILLER Yeah, his first collection was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. I mean, it almost feels like a myth. He thinks he can order the world - chaos says "mmm - can you?" He build 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, and this gesture is what pulled me into his tale. 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. And 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 GLADSTONE 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 MILLER 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 kind of like a matter of how much delusion, and there is clearly a slippery slope where, you know, you do get social punishment for being too deluded about yourself or your abilities. But there is this weird spot, if you lie a little, it serves you really well, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But he was making judgments that he wasn't capable of making. And like his mentor, Louis Agassiz, he ranked what he found. And like his mentor, he believed bad habits, so to speak, could cause species to devolve, whether in mollusks or in man.
LULU MILLER 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 unquote complex, if such a thing is even measurable, meant more evolved, not better as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Darwin never did that. He never ranked species from complex and closer to God to degenerate, intrinsically evil.
LULU MILLER Yeah, I mean, 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. Then 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 GLADSTONE Edges, what do you mean by edges?
LULU MILLER That there are not hard lines, even between species. One of the things he really hammers is, 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 supposed 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 GLADSTONE 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 MILLER You might see beauty in that town. Here's a 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, quote, a veritable chamber of horrors. People drooling or coming up to him and begging. And he said, you know, this is a subspecies of man. And this is where the whole human race is going, if we don't take action. And he becomes one of the earliest embracers of eugenics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He thought that the people of a Aosta were literally degenerating into a new species of man. And he called this process animal pauperism.
LULU MILLER Yes. That laziness, quote unquote. Basically the bad habits, the bad behaviors can cause not just a person, but a species to sort of reverse evolve to slide down that ladder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He didn't believe in nurture much at all. It was all about nature for him.
LULU MILLER 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.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the conclusion of our interview with Lulu Miller.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone with Radiolab co-host Lulu Miller, exploring how over a century ago, taxonomist David Starr Jordan's determination to bring order to the seeming chaos of the natural world led him down the dark path to eugenics.
LULU MILLER The simplest thought was that you could actually kill people. He didn't think that was humane. So he suggested the idea of sterilization. Single out people he called, quote unquote, 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. Harriman, 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 time stomping ground of Indiana.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This law isn't just the first in the country, it's the first in the world.
LULU MILLER There is resistance. Judges or governors who strike down their state's attempted eugenics law. And there are activists and even scientists calling the ideas behind eugenics, quote unquote, 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 sort of weighed and measured like pumpkins, and there'd be the best babies or the fittest families.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was so gross.
LULU MILLER It was so gross.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Uh, I was just wondering if this is a good time to mention Hitler.
LULU MILLER Yes. The American movement predated Hitler's movement. Were 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 and an American eugenicist. Joseph DeJarnette said the Germans are beating us at our own game. You know, I think these ideas arise from different places. Francis Galton turn coined the term eugenics in England. And, of course, like this idea of bettering a herd on your farm, like that has been around for a long time, so 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. And a lot of these people, Aggasiz, 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 GLADSTONE And so 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 MILLER So this is thqis 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 Kladists came along.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And before you get into it, why are they called Kladists?
LULU MILLER So Cleetus 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 lumped together anything that has stripes and 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. So this is the whole puzzle of taxonomy. How do you decide who is closest to whom? And so around the 80s. The Kladists kind of stumbled across this idea that certain characteristics give you better clues. So they'd say, you know, look, we got to not be distracted by things like skin or fur. We have to look deeper at the bone structure and the organs. So, 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? And inevitably, a biology student would raise their hand and say, the salmon and the lungfish, you know, they're both fish in water. That's my guess. And then slowly, the Kladist 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. And 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. And what that means is that, OK, you know, 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 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. You know, we just think there 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. And 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. Yeah, 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 GLADSTONE One dismaying conclusion you came to, dismaying and wonderful, is that if you're a Kladist, you are far less inclined to other creatures if, 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 Yeah, I think it's about having a real vibrant curiosity about anything. You know about any, 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, you know, 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. And 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, like, 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 GLADSTONE And even harder, it seems to accomplish, is to let go of your intuition.
LULU MILLER Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you wrote that seeing the world, or trying to, without intuition, I mean, we can't obviously let it all go, was a peculiarly marvelous feeling.
LULU MILLER Yeah. 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 GLADSTONE 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...
LULU MILLER Of what I don't know?
BROOKE GLADSTONE ...not doing what we are all wired to do.
LULU MILLER Yeah. Let me find one. [BRUSHES THROUGH PAGES] OK, I think. OK. How about this. So 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 griddles place out 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 GLADSTONE Despite the fact that science stands with Kladists, with regard to the existence of fish, nobody wants to go there.
LULU MILLER Yeah
BROOKE GLADSTONE It is just not catching on. Obviously, intuition is just implacably strong. But could you tell me some of the marvels you encountered when you are able to let it go? I mean, you describe in the book a lifelong existential ailment.
LULU MILLER Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And suppressing that intuition seemed to be a means of dealing with it.
LULU MILLER Yeah, I do think with intuition comes the certainty of, you know, what's good for you. You know what you're bad at. You know what's scary? All these things. And 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. 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. You know, these kind of silly criteria. Took a second to let go of. I mean, 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. And I think she was this huge, clear gift of of what you can welcome in when you do that. That's an obvious one but then even just the little things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE 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 MILLER Yeah, the word itself order, ordin em, comes from the Latin for Loom, which is arranging of threads neatly in a loom. And then that became to be used metaphorically as the way that people sit under the ranks of a king or an army general order itself. You know, 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. Look, I was I was spat out near the top of this social hierarchy. I'm queer, so knocked 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 GLADSTONE What is the most revelatory order-overthrowing thing that you learned about a fish?
LULU MILLER They've done these studies that show that 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 that like it's not some whiz banging, they can memorize 10000 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, so that, yeah, that's the one for some reason that being with another being helps them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow. Lulu, thank you so much.
LULU MILLER Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lulu Miller is the co-host of Radiolab and author of Why Fish Don't Exist: a Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life.
BOB GARFIELD You expecting order next week or chaos?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Chaos, soufflé with maybe a sprinkle of order on top. Do you think anyone is really expecting order?
BOB GARFIELD Dunno. Obviously, a lot of people fear disorder even after the votes are all well and truly counted. Will entropy nonetheless reign or has that ship sailed?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some people think we can return to a more orderly time when there weren't cameras on your phone and it was easier to not look at what's happening to wide swaths of the population and to ignore that the planet is warming.
BOB GARFIELD With that kind of order...
BROOKE GLADSTONE - who needs chaos.
BOB GARFIELD OK. Before we get to credits, listen up. Next Tuesday evening from 8:00 Eastern to late everywhere, please join us for our video livestream On the Media's imprecision 2020. Brooke and I are hosting our usual array of journalists and scholars to help frame the swirling chaos and just kind of hold your hand during the sturm und drang und major shpilkes of election night. We'll also have music and a heart to heart with actor, podcasters and occasional president of the United States, Alec Baldwin and WNYC's, whose own Brian Lehrer, who is perhaps the best listener, calmest presence and most principled interlocutor in the galaxy. How to be a part of it? For info on the where and how, just text the words OTM LIVE to 7-0-1-0-1, that's 7-0-1-0-1, or go to thegreenespace.org. That's G-R-E-E-N-E, space dot org. See ya then! That is indeed it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, and Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. Our show was edited... by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Bassist composer, Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.
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