The meaning of life and its illusory ladder in Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don't Exist
A liberal arts education is supposed to expose the student to a broad sweep of knowledge and, ideally, spur them to seek out new passions and curiosities. As time goes by, I've become conflicted about the value of that experience (especially when it comes with crippling debt and at the expense of opportunity for those with less means). But I don't deny that my education allowed me to explore some exciting corners of human knowledge. Ironically, given the original goal of a "liberal arts" experience, one gap in my schooling was the study of philosophy. Aside from a single freshman year course (where I found myself in well over my head), mine was mostly an education focused on the the "harder" sciences, particularly mathematics. I grew accustomed to the rhythm of my coursework: definition, theorem, proof, and corollary. Knowledge and understanding, when I was lucky, tended to branch out in an orderly way. When my footing became shaky, a retreat to the most recent definition would usually sort out my trouble.
My experiences studying math might explain my initial sympathy for David Starr Jordan, the dogged taxonomist at the center of Lulu Miller's fine book Why Fish Don't Exist. I knew of Miller from her work on "Invisibilia" and "Radiolab" and was excited to read her first book. It's equal parts biography and memoir, with more than a dash of philosophical musing. The narrative mostly describes the life and work of David Starr Jordan, a late nineteenth century biologist (and first president of Stanford University) who was obsessed with naming and categorizing life, particularly fish. Jordan and his associates eventually named a sizable fraction of all the fish currently known to science. Miller is fascinated by Jordan's fervent belief in the importance of that work and his persistence despite an almost comical number of disasters, tragedies, and setbacks. She shifts from wonder to disgust as Jordan's fixation on order leads him down the dark path of eugenics. Miller frames her exploration of Jordan's life within the chaos and uncertainty of her own. She asks some of the deeper questions posed throughout human history. Is there meaning to be found in this life? Is there a way to bring order to chaos? Is it even worth trying?
By a happy accident, I recently stumbled upon another excellent book that felt like a natural companion to Miller's in some ways: A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry. This oddly compelling overview of the history of philosophy is the primer I wish I'd read in college. In it, Ferry uses simple language and anecdote to lead the reader through the major schools of philosophy. Although Miller's philosophical meditations are coherent, honest, and actually quite lovely, Ferry's bigger picture view helped me to position Jordan on a timeline of human philosophical tradition.
For example, Jordan is easier to understand when he is situated within the emergence of modern philosophy, especially humanism. Centuries before he was born, texts such as On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (Copernicus) and Principia Mathematica (Newton) shook the Christian worldview that had dominated for centuries after dethroning the philosophy of the Greek Stoics. Jordan (and his mentor, Louis Agassiz) sought to reconcile the complexities and chaos revealed by modern science with Christian principles. It was their belief that by enumerating, categorizing, and naming animals, one could gain divine understanding of the "ladder" of life upon which humans perched above all other species. His determination to see and understand for himself is rooted in the skepticism of Descartes and his obsession with differentiating (and even ranking) animals echoes Rousseau's attempts to use animals as a foil for defining humanity. Jordan's evangelical need for taxonomy might reflect the influence of "modern spirituality." In A Brief History of Thought, Ferry describes this "scientism":
In a style that is fairly close to communism and nationalism, scientism furnished its followers with reasons for living and dying. If you have ever read Jules Verne, you will recall the degree to which 'scientists, explorers, and builders' ... are convinced that by discovering an unknown land or a new scientific law, or by inventing a machine for exploring the sky or the sea, they are inscribing their names in the eternity of historical progress and thereby justifying their entire existence (138).
A latter chapter of Why Fish Don't Exist delves into the science behind the book's provocative title. Miller describes how modern scientists have acknowledged the problems inherent in a well-tended "tree of life." No system of taxonomy is free of contradictions and, no matter how vaunted, must always be a simplification designed for convenience. As you might expect from the title, the particularly arbitrary category of "fish" has faced criticism recently. The hierarchy that Jordan imagined in his "divine ladder" was especially flawed. Darwin himself warned against ranking life in this way and even cautioned against putting too much stock in labels and categories. But as Ferry notes in his philosophical roundup, crafting the illusion of order from chaos (often a stand-in for our mortality), has always been a perpetually urgent human project.
While Miller notes how Jordan drew purpose from scientism, she also recalls brushes with nihilism. She memorably recounts how her father told her at age seven that life is meaningless (a decidedly post-modern and Nietzschean view). Unlike her father, who is able to enjoy life while also embracing its futility, this prospect fills seven-year-old Lulu with confusion and despair. The book's final pages bring her journey to a poignant, if tenuous resolution on that front.
I may not remember much (most?) of the math I learned in college, but the hours I spent building arguments and sorting out webs of interconnected theorems certainly changed the way I think. My approach to life is Jordanesque in a way, as I seek out order and connections, even when they aren't there or aren't the most important thing. Like Jordan, I find much shelter from existential angst in my order-making work and my "positive delusions" (a psychological trait that Miller observes in Jordan and admits that she lacks). It's fascinating to think that while we place our trust in knowledge and science, even that arena is not free of human labels and biases. Although this can be disconcerting, it can can also be freeing to consider what can be gained by shedding some such constructs completely (when we can summon the courage).
For the excellent On The Media interview with Lulu Miller that turned me on to her book, click here.