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On Categories and Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don't Exist

Though I have taken multiple courses related to Knowledge Organization Systems and the varying methods and types of classification, I first came to the understanding of fish as a flawed (or false) category of classification through this episode of On the Media. As a result of that introduction, I had to read Lulu Miller's Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life.

It is a beautiful book, with a stunning jacket design and illustrations by Kate Samworth throughout. It is also a thoroughly thought-provoking book, mingling the story of taxonomist David Starr Jordan with Miller's story, both of which take readers into dark and often forbidding places.

Jordan was a naturalist working at the turn of the twentieth century with a special focus on identifying and classifying species of fish. Though he would later go on to become President of Stanford (and a raging eugenicist), Miller starts by capturing his tumultuous childhood, including the disapproval of his mother. As he drew and collected, Miller explains, Jordan was seen as lazy or frivolous, and the first big tragedy of his young life could have been the day his mother took all his maps and drawings and threw them all away. Despite that setback, he kept drawing and collecting, seeing life in every plant or stem. His curiosity and tenderness toward creatures of all kinds proves his youthful vulnerability, humanizing him and encouraging readers to sympathize with this character that would loom so large in Miller's life and in the book. But Miller would also be compelled by his perseverance in the face of obstacles, some of them huge, some even repeating multiple times in his life.

Around this time, Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species, and by bouncing between the science of evolution and Jordan's story as well as the history of taxonomy and classification, Miller is able to build a compelling personal narrative around huge questions. Stumbling after the end of a meaningful relationship, Miller dives into Jordan's story as a means of finding herself or understanding some larger purpose in the world. Though not always a worthy guide, Jordan remains a touchstone throughout, even as Miller uncovers the truth that she exposes in the book's title: fish, as a legitimate category of classification, do not exist.

Miller cites Naming Nature, the work of Carol Kaesuk Yoon, and given my interest in the tension between biology and information sciences, this is likely to be another important title for me. But Miller's book provides a fascinating and highly readable introduction to these ideas, always returning to the searching and the broken pieces of humanity, always honest about the darkness that pursues her. Whether discussing her father or her sisters, her lover or her wife, Miller brings her relationships into her explorations and vice versa. Along the way, she is startlingly real about her thoughts of suicide, her feelings of nihilism and her struggle to find purpose.

Most interesting to me though was the discussion of categories and the twisty machinations humans have gone through to ensure their place at the top of the hierarchy, insisting (as Jordan's mentor Louis Agassiz did) that

hiding in nature was a divine hierarchy of God's creations that, if gleaned, would provide moral instruction. This idea of a moral code hidden in nature -- a hierarchy, a ladder or "gradation" or perfection -- has been with us for a long time. Aristotle envisioned a holy ladder -- later latinized to scala Naturae -- in which all living organisms could be arranged in a continuum of lowly to divine, with humans at the top, followed by animals, insects, plants, rocks, and so on. And Agassiz believed that by arranging these organisms in their proper order, one could come to discern not just the intent of a holy maker but perhaps even the instructions for how to become better. (25)

But when that divine ladder is proven to be missing a few rungs, when even the definition of the word 'fish' must now be reconsidered, Miller realizes that she, too, had been looking for instructions. And she sees what good can come from letting go of those preconceived notions and the structures we've forced ourselves into. She cites a conversation with her friend Heather, who

brought up, of all people, Copernicus. She spoke about how hard it must have been for people in his day to look up at the stars and fathom that the stars were not the ones moving. But still, it mattered, to talk about it, to think about it, to do the mental scrunching that allowed oneself to slowly let go of the idea of the stars as a celestial ceiling that rotated over one's head each night. Because, as she said: "When you give up the stars you get a universe. So what happens when you give up the fish?" (179)

In the epilogue, Miller provides some answers regarding what she gained when she gave up the fish, but she is clear to invite readers to their own discovery, encouraging them to ask for themselves, "What happens when you give up the fish?"


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