Why Fish Don't Exist|
A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life
, 2020, 240 pp, PP $17.00, Kindle $11.99
Lulu Miller was taught as a young girl that "Chaos is the only sure thing in this world". At age seven she asked her scientist father "what's the meaning of life?" and he responded "Nothing", informing her "there is no point, there is no God…no afterlife…no plan…the truth is none of this matters and you don't matter"; heady stuff for a little girl. However it led her to David Starr Jordan because as a taxonomist, "in many ways, it was his day job to fight Chaos", and in her compelling book Miller weaves us through his biography and her memoir.
David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, a scientist that studied fish, and indeed discovered a fifth of the fish known to us today, appealed to Miller at first when she discovered that in the 1906 earthquake his fish collection was decimated. Instead of despair, he sewed name tags directly on the fish he recognized and proceeded on. He had shown Miller "persistence, or purpose or how to go on" in the face of chaos. Perhaps it was ok to have faith in oneself. Miller writes about her own setbacks and is candid about her personal life. A long term relationship fails after Miller has an affair, and she writes about her painful hope that she will be able to repair it. It is that pain and hope, so universal, that is admirable and fascinating in Miller's prose.
As she delves deeper into Jordan's life we find out some horrid truths. In his defiance of chaos, he believes in a hierarchy in the animal kingdom, and specifically that some humans are on the top of that echelon. As a follower of Louis Agassiz he believed that "hiding in nature was a divine hierarchy of God's creations." As a pupil under Agassiz, he learned that in order to decipher this hierarchy we need to dissect each animal, not to follow the red herring of their outer fur or feathers. The "shockingly similar skeletal plan of fish represented a warning to man. They were scaly reminders of how far a person could slip if he didn't resist his base urges."
As I mentioned Jordan believed "some" humans belonged at the top. In fact it turns out Jordan also believed in eugenics. He was involved in a sterilization program that affected a lot of people who were deemed "unfit". This designation included "paupers, drinkers, imbeciles, idiots and the morally depraved." He published his first pro-eugenics article as early as 1898. Imagine a renowned scientist, the first president of Stanford with all the gravitas that entails a proponent of eugenics. Of course people would buy that bunk, and it is a tricky problem for Miller to grapple. The man who gave her hope, also turned out to have some truly evil ideas. In fact she also unearths the mystery of the co-founder of Stanford's death. It appears to be poison by strychnine, but Jordan fights hard to discredit that, and Miller is "chilled" to learn that Jordan often used strychnine to kill his fish specimens. She leaves it there however and we must speculate for ourselves the truth of that situation.
In spite of, or perhaps even because of, Miller's investigation into Jordan, we and she are left with hope. Miller eventually finds a new love and an acceptance of the chaos around her. She can finally find some levity in the world. Of course we may or may not matter, but as her father taught her, while people don't matter "treat them like they do". This is a kindness we can take away from Miller's book, and there are many wise discoveries that can be found within this satisfying read.