by Peter B. Moyle
Tired of reading about the constant haggling over California water? Or of binge-watching old TV shows? Or, worse, watching the news as the Covid 19 virus spreads in our free country? For relief, I recommend two entertaining yet somewhat off-beat books, reviewed here. The books are very different but both involve fish (if indirectly) and both have central characters (an academic and a thief) you may not like at the end. Both also feature museum collections, the first of fish, the second of birds.
Do Fish Exist?
LuLu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life (2020, 195 pp) is a ‘good read’, but the book is more about the latter half of the title than the former. The book follows Miller’s search for order and meaning in a universe where Chaos will eventually win out, no matter what. She focuses in good part on David Starr Jordan, seeing him initially as a person who had an amazingly positive view of life, bouncing back quickly from tragedies (such as the smashing of hundreds of bottles of pickled fish that he had collected over decades, by the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906). Jordan saw order in the universe through his describing and classifying of thousands of fish species. Miller read his entire massive autobiography (Days of a Man)1 to try to understand him and explored his other voluminous writings as well. In his day, Jordan was perhaps the best-known scientist in the USA, if not the world, and a great popularizer of the importance of science.
Miller, however, discovers he was likely involved in a murder to protect his funding and, worse, was a leader in the terrible eugenics movement in the USA1. His view of an orderly universe with Man as the pinnacle of evolution, led to severely flawed reasoning about “unfit” humans and the need to stop them from reproducing. Miller twines her life around Jordan’s story and resolves her own inner turmoil, by and large. At the end, she finds love and order in her personal universe, without fish.
The main title is intriguing and provides an excuse for pleasant meandering of her thoughts. The following discussion of that title could be regarded as a spoiler (but it is not, really). One way that fish don’t exist is through the philosophic idea that a fish species does not exist unless we humans give it a name, so it is part of human consciousness. Miller is basically bemused by this idea. Another way is more academic. She talks about the modern cladist approach (quantitative, computerized) to classification, which shows that the diverse evolutionary lineages that we lump together as ‘fish’ don’t have a common origin2: lampreys, hagfish, sharks, lungfishes, bony fishes. The cladistic approach makes terrestrial vertebrates (e.g., us) a subset of the Osteichthyes, the main lineage of bony fishes that includes most of the 30,000 or so fish species. Therefore, she opines, fish is not a useful or accurate term. Miller is not a biologist herself and is mildly annoyed by the fact that the fish biologists with whom she talked just accept the problem as not being worth fighting over. Thus, in my text book, I call terrestrial vertebrates “aberrant bony fishes that decided to leave the water and invade the land.” I also say, “Humans are not the pinnacle of evolutionary progress but only an aberrant side branch of fish evolution.” Knowing this, you may want to go and seek your inner fish3.
Still, Miller’s book is worth reading if you are looking for Darwin’s ‘grandeur in this view of life’, want to learn about David Starr Jordan, or just enjoy some good stories about life and love. The book also has curious scratchboard illustrations by Kate Samworth, most featuring Jordan and his mustachios as a fish.
Flies without Fish
Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (2018, 308 pages) is not about fish or water. Its relationship to both is weak, via fly fishing and the tying of artificial flies that are part of the fly-fishing culture. Even here, the tie-in is tenuous because it centers around artificial salmon flies that were developed in Victorian England. These colorful flies have become valuable collector’s items as art objects and are largely tied today by people who do not engage in angling. Their flies have experienced neither water nor fish. The flies are fairly large, around 3-5 cm, and require small pieces of multiple colorful feathers to be tied together. For such a fly to be genuine, the feathers have to come from wild birds with spectacularly colored feathers, such as birds of paradise. In the community of Victorian salmon fly tiers, such feathers today sell for hundreds of dollars. Dyed chicken feathers will not do.
This book focuses on the theft, by a young champion tier of these flies, of dozens of bird specimens from the British Museum of Natural History. The Museum houses the largest collection of birds in the world, including specimens collected in the 19th century by great naturalists such as Charles Russell Wallace. In just one break-in, the thief took 299 specimens of some of the most beautiful birds in the world in order the pluck feathers from them. The book is the author’s attempt to understand the crime and the criminal, with diversions into subjects such as the deprivations that Wallace experienced in order to collect skins that were stolen and the devastation of bird populations caused by collection of plumes for ladies hats. It reads like a good mystery novel in many respects. The feather thief does get caught eventually but the author’s digging found that crime pays, or at least this crime did. The book does suggest that better security is needed for natural history collections, perhaps even for fish collections.
1 I have a copy, inherited from my father. It’s only 906 pages long. I have not read it.
2 Miller points out that eugenics has not gone away; forced sterilization laws are still on the books in many states, ignored but not repealed. When I was an undergrad in the 1960s, the required genetics course I took was called “Genetics and Eugenics” although I don’t recall the prof saying anything about eugenics…
3 Of course, all organisms have a common origin if you go back far enough in time. What she really means is that cladistics does not result in single category “fish” that is equivalent to amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
4 See Neil Shubin’s 2009 book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey in to the 3.5 billion-year History of the Human Body.