“Therefore his shipmates called him mad”: The Science of Moby-Dick

(In 2013, the Los Angeles Public Library asked me to write an essay about the science in Moby-Dick for an online celebration of the book. At some point, its page vanished into the digital ether. So I decided to re-post it here.)


To have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing. What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!”

Ishmael asks himself this question at the beginning of “Cetology,” the thirty-second chapter of Moby-Dick. Up till this point, the narrative of Moby-Dick, as Ishmael recounts his experiences joining the crew of the Pequod, feels fairly straightforward. Readers who bought the novel when it first came out in 1851 probably found it similar to Melville’s previous novels of the sea, like Mardi and White-Jacket. But then Ishmael abruptly turns into a peculiar sort of naturalist. He dedicates an entire chapter to whale taxonomy in absurdly exhaustive detail. Later in the novel, he writes chapters about the anatomy of whales, their fossils, and their ecology.

Those chapters put off many readers and critics in Melville’s day. All that science felt like a massive distraction from the central story of Ahab’s mad pursuit of the White Whale. And even today, I’d wager that a lot of readers page quickly through the long passages about whale flukes and whale brains. But the science of Moby-Dick is as superfluous to the novel as lungs are to the body. Melville used science to elevate the hunt for a single sperm whale into a metaphysical tragicomedy.

Melville gathered the science of Moby-Dick as a self-taught naturalist. He had little formal education as a boy thanks to his father’s bankruptcy. At age 21 he took to the sea for three years, and there he learned about nature first-hand. “I commend the student of Ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific,” he wrote in his 1849 novel Mardi. “As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by. Elsewhere, was never seen their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists.”

There’s some posturing going on here. In fact, Melville got a lot of his own knowledge from the books of the naturalists. On his journey from Hawaii home to New England in 1844, he checked out many scientific volumes from his ship’s library. And a fair amount of Melville’s book-drawn knowledge was wrong.

In Mardi, for example, Melville confidently informed his readers that the remoras — fishes that latch onto sharks and whales — are “impossible to remove from whatever they adhered to, without destroying their lives.” If Melville had tried to remove a remora from a fish with his own hands, he would have realized that this was not true. In reality, remoras stick to their hosts with suction cups on the top of their head. With a quick flick of the cup muscles, they can free themselves and swim away to feed on the scraps of their host’s meals.

It would be unfair, though, to single out Melville for such mistakes. Naturalists in the early 1800s were just becoming acquainted with the world’s biodiversity, and they were overwhelmed by the animals they encountered — the gorilla in Africa, the duck-billed platypus in Australia, the lungfish in Brazil.

Those creatures also put a strain on the elegant framework that European naturalists had erected during the scientific revolution. In that framework, nature was a Great Chain of Being from lower to higher forms, with humans at the peak of nature’s divinely appointed order. In the mid-1700s, Carol Linneaus neatly sorted species into orders and classes, arguing that this very neatness was a sign of God’s handiwork. When naturalists looked closely at the anatomy of any particular species, they perceived a complexity of parts as exquisitely meshed with one another as the springs and gears of a clock. Here was another way to appreciate the divine order of the natural world — what came to be known as natural theology.

When Melville looked at natural theology in the 1840s, however, he found it full of absurdity, futility, and failure. In Moby-Dick, he used whales to make his case. As Ishmael probes the nature of whales — or, rather, what Western civilization knew of whales in the early 1800s — they do not make sense. Instead, they become more baffling. Ishmael chases after an understanding of whales with as much success as Ahab has chasing Moby Dick.

In “Cetology,” for example, Ishmael finds Linnaeus’s classification of whale species to be deeply flawed. He sets up his own system, classifying whales according to their size. It’s a purely artificial scheme, of course. But Melville didn’t see anything more natural about the official taxonomy of whales in his own day.

The confusion only grows when Ishmael steps back to decide whether to call a whale a mammal or a fish. A taxonomist could draw up a compelling list of features to argue for either side. Like mammals, the whale has lungs and mammary glands. Like a fish, it swims with a fluked tail and lives in the water.

“I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me,” Ishmael declares. Instead of providing him with a deeper appreciation of the divine order of nature, taxonomy leaves Ishmael just throwing up his hands.

Later, when Ishmael plunges into the gargantuan anatomy of whales, he can’t detect an elegant clock-like design. Instead, he is overwhelmed by an incomprehensible amalgamation of parts. The whale — like nature in general — is simply too much for him to understand.

Melville was also skeptical of the psychological sciences of his time. In the early 1800s, physiognomy — the science of judging someone’s personality from the bumps on their head — was all the rage. In Moby-Dick Ishmael tries to use physiognomy to comprehend the mind of a sperm whale. But his survey of the whale’s gigantic head ends in yet another failure. “Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable,” he concludes. “I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”

Perhaps instead Ishmael should have said, “Read it if you dare.” Melville doesn’t just think minds are too small to comprehend nature. They are also too fragile. When the cabin boy Pip falls out of the Pequod and sinks into the ocean, he gets to see nature in its full complexity. And he pays a grievous price:

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.

Today, over 160 years after the publication of Moby-Dick, it takes some work to put ourselves in Melville’s shoes, and to understand science as it existed in the 1840s. The human-centered scheme of the Enlightenment is long gone. Today, we know that our species did not exist at the birth of the world a few thousand years ago. Homo sapiens is 300,000 years old, one of billions of species to exist on a 4.56-billion-year-old planet — one planet among quadrillions of planets sprinkled across the universe, which itself formed 13 billion years ago.

As humbling as these discoveries may be, the startling fact remains that we made them. We achieved this knowledge about the universe using our limited brains. In hindsight, we can see that Melville was too pessimistic about what science can tell us about the world. And just as Melville used whales to critique science, today we can use whales to critique Melville. Many of mysteries about whales that Melville considered impenetrable are now solved.

Ironically, the naturalist who opened the way to solving those cetacean enigmas was another man who spent his early twenties on the ocean in the early 1800s. Charles Darwin left Britain at age 21 as the unofficial naturalist of the Beagle. He chronicled his five-year journey in a best-selling book. Melville bought his own copy of Darwin’s account and drew upon it as he worked on Moby-Dick. As Melville was struggling to produce his novel, Darwin was struggling with a book of his own. He had developed a theory to explain how life had taken on is dizzying variety of forms, and how it had come to have a clock-like elegance.

Darwin published that theory in The Origin of Species in 1859, eight years after Moby Dick. We don’t know if Melville ever read it, so we can only speculate how he would received it. Melville might have been amused by how obsessively Darwin crammed his book with details on barnacles, flowers, beetles, armadillos, and just about any other species he knew about. The density of Darwin’s cataloging rivals any page of cetology in Moby Dick.

With his deep respect for the majesty of whales, Melville might have smirked at a story that Darwin casually offered up in his book. Darwin recounted how a naturalist in the United States saw a bear swimming around with its mouth open, catching insects.

“If the supply of insects were constant,” Darwin declared, “and if better adapted competitors did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.”

Despite Darwin’s offhand stories of insect-eating bears, he did something profound in The Origin of Species. His theory explained why whales are the many ways they are: they are the product of evolution over millions of years.

Paleontologists have now dug up the fossil evidence to back up that strange-sounding idea. As far as back as 50 million years ago, they have found the remains of whales with legs. Whales descend from land-walking mammals that gradually adapted to life in the water. Their forelimbs became flippers, and their hind limbs disappeared. Although they took on a fish-like body shape, they remained mammals. They still produced milk to nurse their young. They breathed through their nose, which had become a blowhole.

And they then diversified into the living forms of whales. Far from being an arbitrary game, Linnaeus’s taxonomy of whales reflects their evolution. As whales diverged, one lineage evolved baleen, becoming blue whales, humpback whales, and other giants.

The other lineage evolved peg-shaped teeth. They hunted for food by generating loud sounds in their heads that radiated out into the water and echoed off surrounding objects. That lineage gave rise to dolphins, killer whales, and Melville’s inscrutable muse, the sperm whale. The sperm whale’s massive head, filled with enigmatic organs, seemed to Melville beyond human understanding. We now know that it is a gigantic listening device, shaped by tens of millions of years of evolution.

Yet for all we have learned about whales, Moby-Dick has not gone out of date. We must remain humble about our powers to make sense of the universe. Even now, who are we to try to hook the nose of the Leviathan? All-encompassing theories never lose their seductive appeal, even when we have little evidence with which to build them.

And we have to ask ourselves what metaphysical lessons — if any — we can get from understanding nature. Natural theology has vanished. It is replaced by the fruits of modern science — evolution, quantum physics, and the like. Do we now get to see anything about the deeper meaning of the universe and our place in it?

“Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will,” Ishmael declares in a chapter on whale anatomy. Do we go any deeper today?

(Copyright 2013 Carl Zimmer)

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