Learning Lessons From Inspiration, Despite Complexity, In 'Why Fish Don't Exist'

Apr 17, 2020
Originally published on April 18, 2020 6:05 am

Scientist David Starr Jordan had spent his career identifying new species of fish.

He carefully stored and tagged thousands of them in glass jars. Then the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 hit — leaving his life's work in pieces on the floor.

In her part-history and part-memoir Why Fish Don't Exist, Lulu Miller, former host of the NPR podcast Invisibilia, writes of how Jordan — and his reaction to that moment — inspired her. In the book she writes:

"He didn't give up or despair. He did not heed what seemed to be the clear message of the quake that, in a world ruled by chaos, any attempts at order are doomed to fail eventually. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and scrambled around until he found, of all the weapons in the world, a sewing needle."

But in a twist, Miller eventually discovers some uninspiring pieces of Jordan's life. She says she has taken the lessons he gave her and moved forward with them, just letting the other things that are unhelpful and destructive go.

"There are lessons here, I think, for this moment, which is to not sit around studying what's lost and stolen from you, but to actually just use this as a moment to innovate," she says.


Interview Highlights

On how scientist David Starr Jordan inspired her

I didn't realize I would get so obsessed with him; I seriously set out to maybe write a short essay about what became of him. But, basically, he was a scientist and I was really curious about how he had so much optimism in this moment of utter wreckage. And I think in a way, for me, the question I had is: What made him so hopeful when it seemed so clear that what he was trying to do would never work?

What I hoped would maybe give me some answers was this idea that he seemed to have faith without faith ... and I wondered how he brewed that. Like, how did he just come up with optimism when also staring a sort of seeming meaninglessness and utter doomed odds in the face. And that, for me, is just a personal question, because I've always grown up without faith and with a father who was sort of dogmatically atheist and shoving meaninglessness down our throats whenever possible. And so I think, I don't know, it was just this intuitive question of, well, how is this guy so hopeful and sure of himself — even while being a scientist and being someone who in other areas of his life is just passionately skeptical and takes down anything that he considers magical thinking or unearned optimism. So, I wondered how he how he brewed his own optimism.

On the desire to put order to everything

I mean, even as a journalist, as someone trying to make sense of just the utter chaos and confusion all around us, I think sometimes that lust, that craving for order, or for a story — for meaning — on one hand is the most natural thing in the world, because otherwise we're just overwhelmed and bulldozed by the confusion. But on the other side, the desire to see a story or see order can really be dangerous. And you can, as a journalist, you could take shortcuts and leave things out of a story that completely biased the telling — or tell something that's false or harmful. And, so, I think that that impulse is something I have very deeply and strongly. And it's also something that's sacared me and that, I think, is just something I always want to study and get better at balancing that, you know, I guess that sort of balance between the meaningless that we live with and the meaning we are striving to get in order to make living a little bit easier. ...

I think that in order to live, we are constantly doing this almost gerrymandering in everything we do, putting people together and saying that they're all like this or putting categories of creatures or ideas. I mean, in anything we do, we're looking for these proxies to parse the chaos. And I think that sometimes those categories, even the ones that feel absolutely certain and just an unmovable have real — that they're obscuring nuance. That's just something that I mean, honestly, I didn't know when I started out the book that this would be where it where it led. It was sort of following this wildman story that led me into some of these deeper ideas about why we should mistrust categories, which sounds so abstract when you when you talk about it like this. But where history leads makes you see why that really matters.

On the discovery that her "hero" may have been a "villain"

Once we name a thing, we run the risk of stopping to see it. ... I went into it wanting a parable and wondering, you know, if I behave like him with just foolish optimism, will everything be OK, even though that feels like a dangerous road to travel? And then on one hand, he came out showing a cautionary tale. I mean, the breadth of his wreckage, his violence, his cruelty is utterly stunning. Like you can't imagine that a single person can harm so many people's lives.

... the truth is he, too, was complex. And actually, I think there is — something I've been reckoning with as I'm thinking about this moment — I think he actually also has some helpful lessons about how to move forward — I think the truth is, you know, I wanted the moral clarity and moral instruction, and then I got more ambiguity and complexity. ...

I think that you look at the things he did well and learn from them, and look at the things he did poorly and learn from them. And I think, you know, again, for me one lesson is that a little bit of perhaps foolish optimism can actually allow you to accidentally prevail. Like at least if you keep going and you try, you keep trying and you invent the 3D printer valve that's cheap and you run the risk of getting sued like those Italian guys — like if you try the thing, you actually might make a little headway. You might save some lives. Whereas if you just sit around looking backwards at all the loss and everything and the utter daunting kind of impossibility of what's ahead, that's not going to get you anywhere.

So I think he is a lesson in the sort of alchemy of delusion that, you know, delusions of grandeur can lead to realities of grandeur. It's a weird thing, but a little bit of unearned optimism can help you achieve kind of unthinkable things. But then, at the same time, what I try to do is, for me, his worst fault was clinging too tightly to his beliefs. And kind of getting back to that categories idea. That, I think, is his biggest sin, though, he set out as a young scientist under this idea that science generally hates beliefs — that was something his teacher told him and he was taught to be wary of any believes and to look to nature, not books. In the end, he began clinging very tight to one belief in particular, no matter how many people opposed it or provided counter evidence nd he just couldn't let go. And so that's kind of the other side of it, is sort of have some faith in yourself, but also be able to let go and know that in uncertainty and in, sort of, mistrust of your own beliefs is actually, I think, the true path toward like saving lives and making progress is just being open to revision about your beliefs.

On how her views of the story have changed since the pandemic struck

I mean, I think and I think honestly, if we'd talked about this two months ago [before the coronavirus pandemic], I'd be much more 'Read the cautionary tale. Be wary of your beliefs. Be open to uncertainty.' ... But I'm talking to you in the midst of utter chaos. And I think I'm starting to realize, man, you know, I was kind of stunned and paralyzed for a little bit. And I started to see, you know, people like you guys starting the national conversation, whatever it is, people helping, applauding the health workers from their balconies, people inventing things — just trying things. ... It's the people who behaved just like him. And he was really good in chaos. I mean, disaster struck his life again and again and again. Another bit of his work was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then an earthquake came. He did not sit around and bemoan what he lost. He just tried new stuff. And so I'm suddenly thinking, 'I just wrote this book that is a cautionary tale but, shoot, there are lessons.'

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ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: A new book called "Why Fish Don't Exist" begins at one of the lowest moments in a famous scientist's life. David Starr Jordan had spent his career identifying new species of fish. He carefully stored and tagged thousands of them in glass jars. Then the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 hit.

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: (Reading) Hundreds of jars shattered against the floor. His fish specimens were mutilated by broken glass and fallen shelves. But worst of all were the names, those carefully placed tin tags had been launched at random all over the ground. In some terrible act of Genesis in reverse, his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a heaping mass of the unknown.

(Reading) But as he stood there in the wreckage, his life's work eviscerated at his feet, this mustachioed scientist did something strange. He didn't give up or despair. He did not heed what seemed to be the clear message of the quake, that in a world ruled by chaos, any attempts at order are doomed to fail eventually. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and scrambled around until he found, of all the weapons in the world, a sewing needle.

SHAPIRO: That's author Lulu Miller reading from her book, which is part biography, part memoir. Lulu is a colleague, a founder and former host of NPR's Invisibilia podcast. As she tells the story, David Starr Jordan used that sewing needle to start putting his life's work back together. Instead of despairing, he sewed identification tags onto the fish. Lulu told me that grit is what sparked her interest in this man.

MILLER: How did he just come up with optimism when also staring a sort of seeming meaninglessness and utter doomed odds in the face? And that, for me, is just a personal question because I've always grown up without faith and with a father who was sort of dogmatically atheist and shoving meaninglessness down our throats whenever possible.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: And so I think - I don't know. It was just this intuitive question of, well, how is this guy so hopeful and sure of himself?

SHAPIRO: His life's mission was imposing order on chaos. It was taxonomy. It was naming and identifying and categorizing things, specifically fish. And that project of finding order in a world of chaos clearly appeals to you beyond the naming of fish. What do you think it is about that drive in particular?

MILLER: I think because it's something we all do, I mean, even as a journalist, as someone trying to make sense of just the utter chaos and confusion all around us. I think sometimes that lust, that craving for order or for meaning, on one hand, is the most natural thing in the world because otherwise we're just overwhelmed and bulldozed by the confusion, but on the other side, the desire to see a story or see order can really be dangerous, and that, I think, is just something I always want to study and get better at balancing.

SHAPIRO: I mean, what your book reveals so beautifully is that, as tempting as it is to impose order on chaos, it's, like, a dangerous seduction. And when you put something in a box, you risk snapping off the little filaments and ornaments that would otherwise make it not fit in the box.

MILLER: Yeah, exactly. And I think that in order to live, we are constantly doing this almost gerrymandering in everything we do - putting people together and saying they're all like this or putting categories of creatures or ideas. I mean, in anything we do, we're looking for these proxies to parse the chaos. And, I mean, honestly, I didn't know when I started out the book that this would be where it led. It was sort of following this wild man story that led me into some of these deeper ideas about why we should mistrust categories...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah.

MILLER: ...Which sounds so abstract when you talk about it like this, but where his story leads makes you see why that really matters.

SHAPIRO: It reminds me of a line that the artist Taylor Mac has, which is that comparison is an act of violence. You know, when you say this is like that, you sort of gloss over the uniqueness of the this.

MILLER: You do. And yet who is anyone to say don't do it? Because otherwise...

SHAPIRO: Right.

MILLER: ...How do you walk through the world and wonder, is that leaf poisonous or something I can eat? Like, you have to have proxies to get anywhere. But once we name a thing, we run the risk of stopping to see it.

SHAPIRO: So the book takes some really surprising turns. And while I don't want to give away too much of the story, the man who you viewed as a hero for so long - the first president of Stanford University, the famous scientist who has lakes and rivers and a mountain named after him - turns out not to be a hero at all. In fact, he's a truly terrible human being who inflicts tremendous harm on other people. At one point, you write I had been fashioning myself after a villain.

MILLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What did that discovery do to you?

MILLER: It totally confused me. I mean, I think I went into it wanting a parable and wondering, if I behave like him, with just foolish optimism, will everything be OK? And then on one hand, he came out showing a cautionary tale. I mean, the breadth of his wreckage, his violence, his cruelty is utterly stunning. Like, you can't imagine that a single person can harm so many people's lives.

SHAPIRO: It is specific, and it is sweeping.

MILLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I mean, there is, like, an individual murder plot, and then there is also enormous public policy implications.

MILLER: Exactly. But then at the same time, I mean, the truth is he, too, was complex. And actually, I think, something I've been reckoning with as I'm thinking about this moment, I think he actually also has some helpful lessons. You know, I think the truth is, you know, I wanted some moral clarity and moral instruction, and then I got more ambiguity and complexity. But yeah.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: So yeah, he's got a lot of bad...

SHAPIRO: Like every good story, it's not as clear as it seems from the outside.

MILLER: (Laughter) Yeah.

SHAPIRO: When you talk about the valuable lessons he does offer us, there is a passage where he writes about the San Francisco earthquake that I just thought was so beautiful. I mean, I tweeted it because I thought this is something people need to hear right now.

MILLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Will you just read this section? It's Page 93.

MILLER: Oh, sure. Yes.

(Reading) It is the lesson of the earthquake and fire that man cannot be shaken and cannot be burned. The houses he builds are houses of cards, but he stands outside of them and can build again. It is a wonderful thing to build a great city; more wonderful still is it to be a city, for a city is composed of men, and forever, man must rise above his own creations - that which in man is greater than all that he can do.

SHAPIRO: I just love that sentiment, that whatever people build is not as good as the people themselves.

MILLER: That's a rousing thought right now.

SHAPIRO: It's funny. I was going to ask - having built so much of your life on the lessons that you were taught by David Starr Jordan, when you find out that he's not a person to model your life after, what happens? But it sounds to me like even if the foundation of the structure was pulled out from underneath, the structure can still stand.

MILLER: Yeah, I think so. And I think, honestly, if we'd talked about this two months ago, I'd be much more - he's a cautionary tale. Be wary of your beliefs. Be open to uncertainty.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: Preachy, preachy, preach. But I'm talking you in the midst of utter chaos, and he was really good in chaos. I mean, disaster struck his life again and again and again, and he reacted instantaneously. Like, he did not sit around and bemoan what he lost; he just tried new stuff. And so I'm suddenly thinking, I think I just wrote this book that was a cautionary tale, but - shoot - there are lessons for this moment, which is to not sit around studying what's lost and stolen from you but to actually just use this as a moment to innovate.

SHAPIRO: Lulu Miller's new book is "Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story Of Loss, Love, And The Hidden Order Of Life." It's so great to talk to you. Thank you.

MILLER: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLAR BEAR'S "PEEPERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.