As much as I thrilled to the technology Melville described in Moby-Dick, I particularly enjoyed laughing at Melville’s bad science. Some of his errors are wholly understandable; Melville lived in a pre-Darwinian world in which biology remained a great mystery. But some of his mistakes reflect what will seem a ridiculous statement, yet one I believe I can defend. Melville, I argue, lacked imagination.

Let’s begin with Darwin. Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and sailed around the world aboard the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836. While this voyage helped Darwin formulate his ideas on the evolution of life, these ideas didn’t solidify until the early 1840s, and were not published until 1856, five full years after the publication of Moby-Dick.

This pre- vs post-Darwin worldview is most obvious when Melville tries to classify whales in his chapter on cetology. The first mistake occurs before Melville has even begun his classification scheme. For Melville, “a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” (p 198). He then goes on to classify whales by size as their most important and diagnostic characteristic.

Here’s the thing: in a pre-Darwinian world, there’s no particular sense in which we could say that Melville was wrong, either about whales as fish or about their familial relationships. Without Darwin’s insight of common descent, classification is nothing more than sorting. There are many, many ways to sort everyday objects – by color, by utility, by composition, and so on. Not until Darwin showed that all animals evolved from a common ancestor could there be exactly one correct way to classify them. That one way is to follow the concept of adaptive radiation. The history of life is an ever-branching tree, with each branch a species. Pre-Darwin, anyone might make an argument for or against whales as fish or as mammals. Post-Darwin, there is only one correct answer. Whales are mammals, because their ancestors were mammals.*

*Ironically, modern cladistics, which follows logically from Darwin’s insight, shows us that whales (as well as elephants, eagles, rattlesnakes, and we) actually are fish, because deep, deep in our history, we all have fish ancestors. But this is not the sense in which Melville claims whales as fish.

There’s a revealing episode later in the book in which Melville comments on the very human-like hand bones found in every whale’s fins. Melville is commenting on how strange it is that whales’ bodies so poorly match their skeletons. He says this tendency, “is also curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb.” (p 383) What I find curious is that it never occurred to Melville to ask why the one sort of creature in the ocean with both warm blood and lungs also happened to mimic the mammalian hand under its finny flesh.

A humpback whale skeleton – note the tiny hip bone remnant, and the finger bones embedded in the fins.

As mentioned, all this is perhaps excusable; after all, Darwin’s insight was genius. It took a Darwin to show us exactly what whales (and all other animals) were. But I think there’s a deeper issue in much of Melville’s scientific philosophy. He seems trapped in worldview from an earlier time, a time when nothing much ever changed.

For instance, when discussing cetacean art (art of whales, not art by whales!) Melville makes the following bizarre statement: “(A)ny way you look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”(p. 383) In other words, we’ll never have a good rendering of the whale in life.

A 0.20 second Google image search makes a liar of Melville “about 565,000,000” times. Not fair, you might say. How could Melville ever have predicted the way in which image technology would explode? Yet this is exactly my point. From the moment our ancestors created painted images of the beasts they hunted upon dark and rough cave walls, people have worked to create images of their world. This desire for accurate pictures has never changed, though our technological skill has certainly increased. I take it as a failure of imagination that Melville, steeped as he was in the ingenious technology used to kill whales, could not envision that technology might someday allow us to render those same whales, not into oil, but into faithful images.

More seriously, in chapter 105, Melville asks the question, “Will He (the whale) Perish?”

(W)hether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff. (p. 673)

Melville’s answer is no, we humans will never make the slightest dent in the worldwide whale population. His reasoning, once again, reveals a lack of imagination from this teller of tales. Melville argues that a single whaling ship, on a four-year cruise, is happy to kill and render perhaps forty whales. Such a small number could not possibly affect the whale’s population. He also argues that the ocean is vast, and if whales are chased away from one particular portion of the ocean, they can always relocate to another. Finally, Melville argues that as a last resort whales can always find refuge under the ice, where no human hunter can ever go.

We know, of course, that Melville’s argument fell sloppy dead on all three counts with the coming of more and better technology. Exploding harpoons, more efficient factory ships, and, of course, fossil-fuel engines that could outrun, outmaneuver, and outlast any whale anywhere in the world changed the equation dramatically.

In a related argument, Melville described the blue whale (he called it the sulphur-bottomed whale) quite briefly, merely stating that “he is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line.”(p 204) This to me reveals all, for when whaling began the same might have been said of the sperm whale. No one knew how to hunt it. Then people learned how. Why wouldn’t further learning, further ideas, further technology, reveal a method for hunting this largest of all creatures? Of course, that is exactly what happened, as the technology of World War II, once used to kill people, was soon after turned upon the blue whale, resulting in that magnificent animal’s near-extinction in a matter of decades.

All this makes me think of both David Deutsch’s book, in which he makes a statement so simple and yet deeply profound – we cannot know what we have not yet discovered – and Steven Pinker’s, in which he describes how people have changed over time. In particular, Pinker makes the argument that we today are better at reasoning than were people in the past. I was reminded of this forcefully when I read Melville’s argument that whales are fish. After describing the reasons forwarded by Linnaeus for putting whales into the mammalian class, Melville dismisses these arguments by submitting “all this to my friends . . . both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley (one of the narrator’s friends) profanely hinted they were humbug.” Now there’s an airtight argument for you!

This is so like Pinker’s discussion of the Flynn Effect in IQ testing, reflecting our growing ability to reason. From page 776 of that book:

Consider a typical question from the Similarities section of an IQ test: “What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” The answer, obvious to us, is that they are both mammals. But an American in 1900 would have been just as likely to say, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” The difference, Flynn notes, is that today we spontaneously classify the world with the categories of science, but not so long ago the “correct” answer would seem abstruse and irrelevant. “’Who cares that they are both mammals?’” Flynn imagines the test-taker asking in 1900. “That is the least important thing about them from his point of view. What is important is orientation in space and time, what things are useful, and what things are under one’s control.” (p 776)

Pinker goes on to describe how this change Flynn discovered makes a real difference in our lives:

Flynn suggests that over the course of the 20th century, scientific reasoning infiltrated from the schoolhouse and other institutions into everyday thinking. More people worked in offices and the professions, where they manipulated symbols rather than crops, animals, and machines. People had more time for leisure, and they spent it in reading, playing combinatorial games, and keeping up with the world. (p 778)

All this may seem pretty academic. Big deal that Melville got the science wrong – he was writing over 150 years ago! I think, though, that Melville’s failure is telling. Understanding the world through science, particularly since the Enlightenment, has always led to greater control and influence over that world. As we will see, for Melville such control, even such understanding, is illusory. This illusion of reason speaks to the moral struggles that form the heart of the book. It is those moral struggles to which I turn next.

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