When NPR science reporter Lulu Miller heard about a taxonomist who sewed names directly onto his fish specimens after the 1906 earthquake ruined his collection, her ears perked up.
“This was such an expression of humanity,” Miller told me. “The human stubbornness with which we all approach the chaos that keeps trying to do us in.” Without even knowing his name, she started wondering about this relentless ichthyologist a few years later, as her own life faced different forms of destruction. Did that attitude serve him well? She only intended to write a one-page essay, closing the loop on this anecdote, titled something like, “Man versus Chaos.” But she ended up writing much more.
Miller’s new book, Why Fish Don’t Exist, follows David Starr Jordan’s trajectory as an early twentieth-century taxonomist and educator—he was also the president of Indiana University and the founding president of Stanford University—in a genre-bending tale that mixes insights from psychology, philosophy, and biology with biography and memoir. I reached out to Miller to discuss her book. Our conversation touched on a range of topics, including how people, scientists in particular, cope with life’s unpredictability, what scientists might learn from journalists, and why you really do matter (yes, you!) after all. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You and David Starr Jordan seem like an unlikely duo for a book. How did you decide to tell both his and your stories in this way? Was there a moment when you knew your story was entangled with his?
I literally just wanted to write a one-page essay called “Man Versus Chaos.” Then I started researching him, and he left behind so much work. He’s a mix of funny, endearing, passionate about nature, and has this dark side. That made him a very interesting person to research. I sat down to write this essay, and at the end of six weeks of obsessive writing about him I looked up and I had written about 35 pages single spaced. I think it was somewhere in there where I started to realize part of why I was so infatuated with him. It came from this place of How do we move forward when there are no assurances what we’re working on is going to work? I realized I am fascinated by this man because this is a question that’s very unanswered in me.
Chaos is a theme that runs throughout your book. For many people, chaos has a negative connotation. And this was true for you too, but your perspective shifted. What does chaos mean to you now?
I think about the light side of chaos. I think about the other side of this thing that I’d been worshipping, essentially, and cowering under for my whole life. I thought of chaos as the force that rules me. And then I started to realize—it’s so simple—that chaos is also the force that makes growth, and throws out a shooting star, and the rainbow, and the things that are the surprises you can’t even think to dream up. I talk about at the end of the book, that on Neptune, it rains diamonds. I have just started to think much more about opening myself up to the strange gifts of it. I think that the gifts are always there, and it’s the work of the human to see them.
One of the ways that’s helped me to see them is to let go of the specificity of my goals. To realize that the things I want, what I can come up with, is so much smaller and more short sighted than what the universe might have in store.
I thought of chaos as the force that rules me, and then I started to realize—it’s so simple—that chaos is also the force that makes growth.
I prefer to think about chaos as randomness. It’s the same idea, but it doesn’t have the negative connotation.
Right, it’s this life-giving force. We can thank randomness for being here!
Which brings us back to David Starr Jordan, the taxonomist. He supported Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which hinges on randomness and variation. But his beliefs veered in a dangerous direction. Can you explain what happened?
Early in his life, he believed in the idea of a “natural hierarchy.” I think it’s a very intuitive human idea, that there are bugs and slugs down low, slowly moving up through fish and mammals toward some definition of superiority. Even as he accepted Darwin, he did not let go of the idea of a hierarchy; he believed that newer species, species that were “further out on the tree,” were better. And he believed this stratification existed within a species, too. Within humans, he thought that some were higher than others, and some were lower. He came to believe in the ideas of Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, the forefather of eugenics: the idea that you can weed out certain traits that they associated with inferiority (poverty, criminality, promiscuity, low scores on IQ tests) to build a master race. Jordan just thought that all these traits, most of which came about through complex environmental factors, were linked to the blood and could be purged from society via sterilization—which he saw as an incredibly humane alternative to execution.
The things I want, what I can come up with, is so much smaller and more short sighted than what the universe might have in store.
Even as there was more and more scientific opposition to eugenics, Jordan believed this was the pathway to making the world better. He was holding on to that hierarchy, which I think made him feel oriented in the chaos. But he disobeyed the fundamental rule he preached to his students, which is that “science, generally, hates beliefs”; this beautiful idea of being wary of every belief and looking at nature for answers. He just leaned further and further into eugenics.
This point reminds me of a running motif in your book that even scientists and atheists like ritual. Can you talk about why that matters?
As someone who’s a science reporter, born of a scientist, married to a scientist, I’m a believer in science. But it’s a reminder to me that just like anything else, science is born of humans and is subjective and fills certain emotional needs. What I’m doing with that motif is pointing out that scientists are humans too, in need of meaning and ritual and spirituality. I think they are wedded to objectivity in the search for truth and they have come up with beautiful things. But at the individual level, studies can be flawed.
Yeah, I think that’s an extremely important reminder.
And it’s a weird reminder in a moment like this, when science is under attack. It’s such a hard line to take, because I’m not saying, “Mistrust science.” I’m just saying, “Move slowly. Be wary of it, especially when it comes to things about moral or mental standing.” It is so valid to want to get in there and talk about it, and quantify it, and measure it, and study it. But I think we always have to be considering the measures we’re making and the questions we’re asking, which are shaping the results we’re seeing.
He disobeyed the fundamental rule he preached to his students, which is that “science, generally, hates beliefs”; this beautiful idea of being wary of every belief and looking at nature for answers. He just leaned further and further into eugenics.
Let’s talk about self-delusion. Your book explores how our understanding of self-delusion has transformed from biblical times to today’s psychology research. How has our idea of self-delusion changed over time?
In a lot of religious texts and in writing from the Enlightenment era, self-delusion was looked upon negatively and seen as a moral failing. There’s this incentive to be humble and see the world accurately. Then, starting in the 1970s, psychologists started noticing that people who had a rosy view of themselves and their abilities were doing a little bit better in life. Essentially, a slightly rosy view of the world and yourself is really good, and if you have an overly accurate worldview of how doomed your chances are and how small you are—that’s often someone skewing a little more depressed.
I think that’s an idea that people are fairly aware of. I think what is maybe less known is how that has trickled into a lot of practitioners’ offices and even into our curriculum and the kind of books we buy. There’s this gentle nudging to help people do story editing and remember things in a slightly sunnier way. Too much delusion is not helpful, because it can be maladaptive if you’re completely out of touch with reality. But that slightly positive, inflated view of yourself can have profound results in your life and can actually measurably help you achieve your goals. It’s powerful that these things can be taught, and that when used for good, it’s beautiful. How do you create social change? Activists have to have some kind of faith and hardheadedness and it can be a beautiful thing.
Maybe I’m the old fashioned, ancient Greek, atheist, biblical person, but isn’t there a cost to society if we’re just breeding bulldozers who are trying to achieve their own ends? Isn’t there a cost if there’s no actual incentive to tell you to be humble and not only think of yourself? Doesn’t that come at a cost to society?
Um, I want to point out that you called yourself an “atheist, biblical” person.
Yeah, I know. It’s my atheist fantasy! My desire for cosmic justice and my own desire for moral order that selfish bad guys will get punished. But they don’t. They just don’t. That’s the reality.
Well, let’s continue getting existential. Your book poses the ultimate existential question of, Do I matter? I was reassured to find that according to the dandelion principle, the answer is yes. Can you explain more?
Hail the dandelion! I smile at dandelions now. I’m not kidding you. I feel so grateful for learning that metaphor. The genuine principle is just a very basic idea of relativity. A dandelion may look like a weed to a gardener. But to an herbalist, it may be incredibly valuable. It’s been shown to help with digestion and different skin and vision things. To a painter, it might be a pigment or two. The idea is that there is not an ultimate hierarchy of worth—that it’s a human imposition. It’s the same idea that that value is in the eye of the beholder. There is not an absolute value to a dandelion or slug or rose. There’s just the value you make of it.
Maybe I’m the old fashioned, ancient Greek, atheist, biblical person, but isn’t there a cost to society if we’re just breeding bulldozers who are trying to achieve their own ends?
On top of that, I think it shows how little our comprehension of the inner workings of the natural world are. My dad, when I was a little girl, would say, “You don’t matter. We don’t matter to the planet.” That is true. That’s one way of seeing things, and it’s totally valid. But that’s one vantage point. That’s from the perspective of time and way up high in the stars. But if you zoom down to the level of the street, humans matter tremendously to one another. And it sounds sort of cheesy, but in an interdependence way, those little connections we have with one another can end up being the difference between life or death, or a life well-lived.
Throughout your career you’ve straddled the worlds of storytelling, first at Radiolab, then at Invisibilia, and now with your book. What do you think scientists might learn from journalists?
I don’t know, I feel like we’re just learning from them. One of my favorite parts of the process is challenging myself to go to one of the unexpected experts and bring into the story a voice that’s been left out of the study. Time and time again, no matter who you’re talking to, someone has wisdom and really interesting questions you should be asking, or ways you should be seeing the results. That would be something to encourage. Bring people outside of academia into the scientific process. Whether that’s bringing someone into a weekly staff meeting, or into a moment when you’re designing the experiment, or bringing in someone to look at the results. That’s what I would say scientists could learn. They’re already so smart and curious. An outside perspective would just enrich their experiments and questions and results.
And what do you think journalists can learn from scientists?
I think it’s our job to tell the story to make people listen and care. But like a good scientist, journalists should always be wary of the “story.” What I mean by that is think about the details, the omissions, and make sure you don’t sacrifice complexity for the need for a good, rollicking tale. Remembering to showcase complexity is how I think we can keep growing and learning.
This last question is a fun one. If you were to have David Starr Jordan over for dinner tomorrow, what would you want to ask him and what would you want to tell him?
I would ask him … “I won’t tell anyone, no one needs to know, but did you ever start to second-guess your certainty in eugenics? Did you ever feel remorse?” I couldn’t find any evidence of him writing about that, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel it. I wonder if he did start to doubt his belief in it. That’s what I really want to know. Because part of me wants to believe he was a good enough scientist to know that was wrong. I would tell him that humility could be sexy, too. Vulnerability, admitting you messed up, that can be attractive.