Thursday, September 30, 2021

Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller

Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller is an interesting and profound work of nonfiction subtitled A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life. Miller chronicles the life of David Starr Jordan, the first President of Stanford University, and a renowned taxonomist. 

Jordan embraced classifying fish, with Miller noting that he credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. It was fascinating reading of how Jordan suffered multiple personal calamities, and after each tended to plunge deeper into his work, in essence trying to bring order to chaos. For instance, after his collections were destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he immediately set out rebuilding. Miller writes of how that Jordan’s ability to carry forward also came with a lack of doubt his beliefs, something that at first seems positive, but can become a grave negative. Jordan (whose name is many places at Stanford) believed strongly in the principle of eugenics, or breeding out imperfections from humanity with atrocities like forced sterilization. Also, Miller writes of how Jordan quite possibly had the namesake of the university, Jane Stanford, killed by strychnine poisoning.

The title of the book came from how in the 1980s, many taxonomists began to say that they didn’t believe there is a simple classification called fish, there’s too much variety in what we might consider fish, and too many of them are like what we wouldn’t consider fish. This changed view is interesting to consider juxtaposed with Jordan's lack of doubt in how he went about his life and work.

The book jacket notes that it part biography, part memoir, and part scientific adventure, and Miller writes of how as she researched Jordan and his efforts to establish order from chaos, she was attempting to do the same in hers. I enjoy books that have this sort of duality in them, with the writer examining someone else’s life while also looking at their own and Miller at the end of the book noted that what she found was a life that matters to her, and that the chaos that she faced, and Jordan spent his life combating, can also bring good things.