Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Science vs. religion clash: is a whale a fish?

What seems like a basic biological question blew up into a vitriolic public smackdown. Sound familiar?

In 1818, a whale oil dealer refused to pay a fish-product fine on whale oil, because a whale isn't a fish. The inspector insisted on the tax, and a spirited court and public battle played out.

This struggle sounds silly today, but it ignited a culture clash much like the current struggle over evolution and creation in public schools.

Ultimately a jury ruled that a "whale is a fish," until the New York legislature settled the matter by voting that whales are not fish. I knew we could count on NY.

This fascinating tale comes from D. Graham Burnett in Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature.

The Princeton University website says this about the book:

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael declares, "Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that a whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me." Few readers today know just how much argument Ishmael is waiving aside. In fact, Melville's antihero here takes sides in one of the great controversies of the early nineteenth century--one that ultimately had to be resolved in the courts of New York City. In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular--and biblically sanctioned--view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature--and how we know it--was at stake. Burnett vividly re-creates the trial, during which a parade of experts--pea-coated whalemen, pompous philosophers, Jacobin lawyers--took the witness stand, brandishing books, drawings, and anatomical reports, and telling tall tales from whaling voyages. Falling in the middle of the century between Linnaeus and Darwin, the trial dramatized a revolutionary period that saw radical transformations in the understanding of the natural world. Out went comfortable biblical categories, and in came new sorting methods based on the minutiae of interior anatomy--and louche details about the sexual behaviors of God's creatures.

When leviathan breached in New York in 1818, this strange beast churned both the natural and social orders--and not everyone would survive.


Paul Havlak said...

Actually, it makes sense for a court to stick with legislative intent -- if a law was passed with the understanding that whales were fish, they should be treated as legal fish.

And the legislature later, wisely, fixed the law as the scientific usage became more common.

But face it, the ancient definition of fish wasn't the modern taxonomic one, so "starfish" and "jellyfish" weren't such idiotic terms as they seem today.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of another fierce religion/science fish debate, also dating back to the 1800's and continuing today, about whether Swordfish (and a few other species, e.g. sturgeon, turbot) are Kosher? In Jewish law, fish are kosher only if they possess fins and scales. All of these have fins. The question is, do they have scales...and are they the right kind of scales. Jewish law requires that for these scales to count, they must be "easily removable". But what is "easily removable" mean? Different groups of Jews remain split on this. For swordfish, one of the Jewish holy books, the Talmud, explicitly states that swordfish are kosher. However, even this has not resolved the argument, because "swordfish" or the Hebrew equivalent is a common, not a scientific, name and there remains an argument over what species this refers to. Go figure! PS: Jewish Law does appear to treat "fish" in much the same way as Magnuson-Stevens, as an inclusive term for all/most marine life.

Anonymous said...

In the US tomatoes are legally classified as a vegetable while botanically they are a fruit.

Unknown said...

I notice you're vice president for fish conservation. Given the issues presented here, do you care about _whale_ conservation?


Mark Powell said...

Well whales aren't fish but I do care about whale conservation too. Touche, nice point. Actually, comments here and on Pharyngula are right, the rules about fish duties may rightly target whales even if whales aren't fish.

The intersting part to me is the way religious and scientific figures weighed in, creating a culture clash of science vs. religion, using this issue as a place to pitch that battle.

Anonymous said...

I think you have also mentioned on this blog before, but there is still a question of whether or not sea turtles are fish. Again, from a religious point of view.

Jacquelyn said...

I had this fight with my brother. We're both Christians, and my brother continues to say a whale is a fish, even after I point out in the Bible where God said it was a fish. He ignored me. Then, I said "Since you believe the scientists, I guess you'd say a tomato is a fruit." He (and I) both believe a tomato is a vegetable. He responded "No, it isn't!" and went back to his computer.

Haoti said...

Very interesting argument. I never heard of this debate so it is welcome. Are whales fish are mammals? I guess it's more complicated than I thought.