Summer of Science Reading, Episode 1: The Many Mysteries of Fish

Welcome to Scientific American’s Science of Summer Reading. I’m your host Deboki Chakravarti. Sometimes on Science Talk, we have conversations with authors about their books, but this series is going to be a little different. What I love as a reader is seeing how books can end up feeling like they’re in conversation with each other, even when theyre not written to do that.

So for the month of August, Ill be taking on two science books at a time and just chat with you a bit about them. Ill be talking through what the authors made me think and feel. Maybe youve read these books yourself. Maybe youve even had some of the same feelings after reading them or maybe not. 

And if you havent read them, well, maybe this Science Book Talk will inspire you to.

Today Ive got two books about the mysteries of fish. Some of these mysteries are scientific; some of them are existential. But they all become quite personal in the hands of the authors, raising more questions about the how we apply the lessons we learn from nature to our own lives.

Prologue: The books (and fishes) in question

The first book is The Book of Eels, written by Patrik Svensson and translated from Swedish to English by Agnes Broomé. In it, Svensson details just how little we truly know about the eel, a creature whose life cycle is so dramatic that even the more odd attempts to explain their reproduction—like Aristotle’s insistence that they must just be borne out of mud—feel mundane next to the eel’s reality.

The second book is Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller. The book traces the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who collected fish upon fish in his attempt to categorize the world. Miller documents the dramatic moments that punctuate the timeline of Jordan’s work, from deaths to natural disasters to even a potential poisoning. 

Both Svensson and Miller approach their subjects with their own personal stories in tow. But at the center of it all is fish.

Chapter 1: The Mystery, Scientific

The scope of the mysteries for these books is different. In Why Fish Don’t Exist, the question driving its central character of David Starr Jordan is really the question all fish—and in turn, of all animals. There are many, many animals that we call “fish,” so how, in turn can we categorize them?

The love of naming and categorizing starts young for Jordan, with studies of stars and maps and flower. But it becomes a much more concerted and fish-centric pursuit in 1873 when he ventures out to an island off the coast of Massachusetts. He traveled to this island specifically to learn from Louis Agassiz, a naturalist who saw taxonomy as a scientific inquiry into the traits that were most important to god.

But as Miller notes from the start of her book, the work of a taxonomist is, in a sense, to “fight Chaos.” She writes, “He was a taxonomist, the kind of scientist charged with bringing order to the Chaos of the earth by uncovering the shape of the great tree of life….” And it’s this sense of Chaos and Jordan’s quest to bring order to it that drives the narrative. After all, this is a man who collected thousands of fish in an attempt to understand what separates and divides them, and to understand a hierarchy of nature formed by evolution.

Of course, the title of the book introduces the question that will linger in the background of that mystery. After all, with every page documenting fish samples and the seemingly catastrophic circumstances of earthquake and fire that Jordan overcomes in his pursuit of order, the title chases: why don’t fish exist?

In contrast, the mystery of The Book of Ells is much narrower in scope. This isn’t about all fish. It’s just about one: the eel, slippery in our cultural imagery and scientific understanding.

In a way, the book begins with the answer before it even fully lays out the questions. The first sentence begins with, “This is how the birth of the eel comes about….” And from there, Svensson lays out the complicated life cycle of the European eel as it travels from the ill-defined borders of the Sargasso Sea and goes through its own physical shifts, from willow leaf to glass eel to yellow eel to silver eel. Its journey will take it from its saltwater origins to freshwater abodes until its ready to reproduce and travels back to its oceanic birthplace to do so. 

So before we even get to know what the eel question is, it seems like we have an answer. It’s clear that the answer is quite involved, and so it becomes easier to forgive the historical figures we learn about who struggle with what should be a seemingly simple question: how are baby eels made?

And this is a question with a notable list of askers. Aristotle’s best guess in the fourth century BCE was that eels emerge into existence when rainwater meets dry earth, a theory borne out of what he could see and what he could not. He could see eels seeming to come out of nowhere from freshly rained-upon ponds. He couldn ‘t see any reproductive organs or eggs inside the eels when he attempted to find them. 

It wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists were able to find an eel with developed eggs and reproductive organs, and even then it became difficult to find other eels to confirm the discovery. A young Sigmund Freud made his own attempts before giving up and moving on to other fields.

At every step of the scientific journey that Svensson describes, learning more about the eel only makes it more mysterious, like we’re asymptotically approaching some sort of understanding of where the eel comes from that is always going to be just out of our reach. 

We’ll talk more about finding the personal in these scientific mysterious after this word from our sponsor.

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Welcome, Jill Kincaid, I’m so excited to have a chance to talk with you about what you’ve been up to for the past year.

Jill Kincaid: It’s a pleasure to be here.

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Hall: What did it mean to you to win the Catalyst for Care Award?

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Hall: In what other ways did the award affect your work?

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Hall: If your sister Karen were here, what do you think she would say?

Kincaid: What took you so long? Because she had such a terrible experience. This was really something she talked about a lot that she wanted to do, and I think she’d give me a big hug and say, well done.

Hall: That’s great!  So it sounds like Chemo Buddies has started an entirely new program as a result of the award.

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Kincaid: Oh, my pleasure.

Hall: Jill Kincaid is the Founder and CEO of Chemo Buddies. In 2020, she received the Catalyst for Care Award from the Cancer Community Awards, part of AstraZeneca Your Cancer program. Your Cancer brings together the community that is working to drive meaningful change in cancer care. This podcast was produced by Scientific American custom media and made possible through the support of AstraZeneca’s Your Cancer Program.

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And we’re back with more Science Book Talk.

Chapter 2: The Mystery, Made Personal

If Miller’s book centers around order, then Svensson’s centers around questions of origin. And those are questions of science, but they’re also incredibly personal questions—ones that the authors themselves explore.

Interestingly, for both authors, this personal exploration heavily involves their fathers. Maybe it’s only fitting. After all, as Svensson writes, “A person seeking the origin of something is also seeking his own origin. Is that a reasonable statement?

Throughout The Book of Eels, Svensson alternates between the history of the eel and vignettes of fishing trips he took with his father as they attempt to capture eels themselves. These stories are a return to his own origins, and they contain elements that parallel what we see in the eels. There are stories and questions around the compulsions and lessons we pass on through generations.

And who better to embody the ambiguities of familial connections than the mysterious eel, who knows somehow to return to some distant somewhere to do something—all of which remains as vague and unknown to us as perhaps our own personal compulsions do, even when we can trace them through our own family history.

For Miller, the lesson into chaos and order begins on a family trip not far from the island that inspired David Starr Jordan to take up ichthyology. She’s seven and asking her father about the meaning of life, and he explains that, “as special as you might feel, you are no different than an ant. A bit bigger, maybe, but no more significant.” It’s a lesson on the lack of order in the universe, on the inherent Chaos of it all. And it’s a lesson often repeated in its shorter equivalent throughout the book, “You don’t matter.

The purpose of the lesson is not necessarily a cold insignificance. In fact, its meant as the opposite when it comes from her father, who abides by it as a form a freedom when experiencing the world, but who also sees that just because we don’t matter, doesn’t meant we need to treat each other like we don’t. 

But it’s one thing to learn about Chaos, and another thing altogether to experience it. And to accept the existence of Chaos is to also accept a world where people respond to it different. And as Miller documents her own challenges as a teenager and later with the mess of a relationship ended, Chaos becomes not the source of joy that it is for her father, but rather a thing to be overcome. And who better to learn from than Jordan, who both scientifically attempts to defy it, and personally pushes through with his own optimistic shield?

Chapter 3: The Limits

It turns out that perhaps Jordan is not such a good avatar for persistence. I sometimes feel this sense of dread when learning about nineteenth and 20th century scientists, particularly those who studied genetics and taxonomy. It’s the question always lingering in the back of my mind: was this person a eugenicist?

In the case of Jordan, the answer is yes. And Miller confronts this head on, willing to grapple with the fact that the man she has been studying as an avatar for resilience in the face of Chaos was himself in favor of a cruel ordering to the world that has led to further violence and suffering.

It’s a dark part of the story, but also an important one to explore. As Miller says, “Eugenic ideology is anything but dead in this country; we are sticky with the stuff.” Jordan was the founding president of Stanford. He also chaired the Eugenics Committee of the American Breeders Association. Those legacies are intertwined, the former providing legitimacy to the latter.

And that is all borne of the person—the person whose stubbornness was previously a testament to his ability to push through difficulty, but whose stubbornness was now a form of callousness to both other people and nature itself.

This section is a turning point for Miller in her relationship to her subject and to her question to understand order itself. But since I’ve read the book, I’ve been thinking a lot about the underlying endeavor of both Miller and her subject. Of course, it’s not unusual to look for a bit of ourselves in the things we study. If we wanted to get meta about it, you could say we’re doing a little bit of that right now, through this chain of us talking about a book where the author is talking about a man who spent his life talking about fish.

And Jordan might have seen a little bit of himself in the fish he studied, or at least in one fish. A spiky, dragon-like fish called “Agonomalus jordani”—the only fish he named for himself. Miller asks, “Why was this the creature David felt reflected him? Was there some sort of confession in the choice? Of some dark side lurking beneath the friendly man so capable of winning hearts, jobs, awards?”

In The Book of Eels, Svensson addresses the underlying impulse to see ourselves in other animals. At one point, after reflecting on how we talk about eels being secretive and in pursuit of a home as if those are our own traits made manifest in another animal, Svensson writes, “Of course, I’m anthropomorphizing the eel, forcing it to be more than it is or wishes to be, which may seem somewhat dubious.”

What follows is a discussion on our own love of anthropomorphizing animals in the stories we tell, but also at times the need for it. Svensson in particular focuses on the legacy of Rachel Carson, who anthropomorphized nature to help readers feel more connected to it.

I loved this discussion in The Book of Eels for how it enriched the book and its weaving of personal and scientific narrative. For something as mysterious as the eel, it’s easy to project onto it because there’s so much space where our own experience can go. And anthropomorphizing allows us a way to consider them in their many hypotheticals. 

It’s easier to have this discussion with the subjects of The Book of Eels because you don’t have to have the same lingering question of, “Is the eel a eugenicist?” as you do with a book about a 19th century taxonomist. If anything, the distance helps, obscuring any flaws that we would see if we were looking for our reflection in something closer.

The Epilogue

I’ll be honest: I am much more likely to project my own personality onto a cat than a fish, especially an eel. I can’t compare myself to an animal that is willing to undertake such big risks and changes when there are so many couches to nap on and so many meals to wait for. 

But I also hadn’t really understood how much I overlooked the eel before I read The Book of Eels, or just how much I’d overlooked the fact that I couldn’t actually define a fish for you until I’d read Why Fish Don’t exist. I also underestimated how much fun it would be to read a book that asks “is the eel a fish?” after having just read a book questioning the very existence of a definition for fish. 

But that’s the beauty of these two books together, that they both take on fish from very different levels of specificity and very different notions of experience. And they both find their own meaning in the gaps of our knowledge, and the limits of our exploration.

Thanks for joining me this week in Science Book Talk. Next week, join me a move from life in the water to life right underneath our feet.

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