Fish Aren’t Real, And Other Existential Crises

A science journalist grapples with life and meaning in her biography of a fish scientist.

Art created with Canva.

I started reading a book called Why Fish Don’t Exist during one of my shifts at the bookstore where I work. It was something to keep me busy while I waited at the register for the few customers allowed inside of the store to make their way over with their purchases.

One of them, noticing the book, mentioned he was a fisherman. “I’m pretty sure that fish exist,” he said, his eyes crinkling as he smiled behind his mask. “But I suppose I’ll have to give it a read.”

The weird title had also attracted me to it. The author, Lulu Miller, is on a quest to understand a man named David Starr Jordan, an ichthyologist born in 1851. In a world where Chaos reigns supreme, Jordan fights to categorize species of fish as the universe conspires against him. He names, categorizes, and tucks them neatly away inside formaldehyde-filled jars, carefully labeled and stacked on shelves.

Then a fire consumes his lab. He starts again. Then the earthquake of 1906 hits. He begins once more, this time stitching name tags directly into the flesh of the preserved fish, desperate not to lose the order he’s brought to this world ruled by Chaos.

Chaos controls Miller’s world as well. In the pages of Jordan’s life’s work, she seeks answers with the desperation of someone hoping to find a reason to live. As Miller describes an unfortunate experience with sleeping pills and a hospital trip during high school, my mind lingers over the idea of that powerful sadness.

Because I know it, too. The dark, heavy thundercloud hanging just above my shoulders, raining down on me so hard I’m afraid I will drown. Miller knew what that sadness, that shame, was like. And if she knew, then surely her efforts to try to understand David Starr Jordan’s confidence in his purpose and place in life mirrored my own quest. I had to know what she had learned — it kept my eyes glued to the book, turning page after page like a wounded animal seeking survival.

David Starr Jordan fought disaster with order, and I know that fight all too well. One of the symptoms of my depression is an anxiety disorder that involves an obsession with neatness, with control. It’s a pitiful attempt to bring order to Chaos, because order is control.

David Starr Jordan, the taxonomist obsessed with his formaldehyde fish, was trying to control a random universe by categorizing everything into his preferred order. Man deciding Fate. A feeble fight against futility. As Miller documents throughout the book, he made great progress by naming thousands of fish. You could even say he was successful in his war on entropy.

But here’s the problem: fish don’t really exist.

Technically speaking, fish as a category is “total bunk”, Miller explains — an ironic, delicious explanation of a major scientific controversy that throws everything we thought we knew out the window.

A biologist may be familiar with this issue, but for readers without a scientific background, it’s a confounding surprise.

“Every branch on the tree of life is considered to be a member of all its parent branches,” writes museum curator Jake Ashby for The Conversation. “This means, for example, there can be no definition of fish that does not include everything that evolved from fish.”

That certainly complicates things for our fish scientist David, doesn’t it? Miller compares it to Copernicus discovering that the stars don’t rotate around the Earth — and learning humanity is just a speck in a universe. She knew that “waiting on the other side of the fish was something else. That letting go of the fish would result in some sort of existential change.”

“When you give up the stars you get a universe. So what happens when you give up the fish?”

Miller deftly weaves her personal life into each scientific revelation she explores. Toward the end of the book, through a budding relationship with the woman who would become her wife, Miller also touches on her bisexuality.

Seeing that word on the page, I was overwhelmed. Because what Miller doesn’t know is that by sharing her fight with depression, she already became a role model in my eyes. Proof that you could suffer with a depressive disorder like mine and still become a successful science journalist. Now I know she also understands what it’s like to exist in a world that wants to deny you the fact of loving and feeling attraction to more than one gender.

Here’s the thing — people who are bisexual are the least likely to be out, and the most likely to suffer from mental health disorders like depression. One study found that 78% of a surveyed bisexual population reported they had thought about suicide. But both straight people and the LGBTQ+ community ignore this.

Suicide, of course, never does bring order to the Chaos. It simply creates more for the world you leave behind. And Jordan certainly created his own wake of Chaos. During his time serving as the first president of Stanford University, there’s evidence to suggest he may have poisoned founding mother Jane Stanford when she threatened to oust him. And in his sunset years, he was an ardent crusader for eugenics.

“Other scientists questioned the validity of the concept of ‘degeneration,’ the idea that charity causes physical deterioration; they were unconvinced that life moved ‘backwards’ in the way David claimed it did, unconvinced that sea squirts, for example, had devolved into immobile sacs as a result of relying on food from other species,” writes Miller. “These skeptics would later be proved right.”

Darwin, she notes, hailed diverse gene pools and variation, celebrated mutants and outliers. Eugenics conveniently ignores the fact that to breed for homogeneity is to sentence the human race to death. “Darwin even goes out of his way to warn against meddling,” Miller points out. “The danger, as he sees it, is the fallibility of the human eye, our inability to comprehend complexity.”

But Jordan remained steadfast in his belief that eugenics was the only answer to what he saw as humanity’s descent into Chaos. He died believing that some people didn’t deserve the right to exist. Including people with mental health disorders and “incorrect” sexual orientations, like Miller and I.

One of the book’s themes is more of an existential crisis — the question of meaning. Do we matter? A scientific worldview suggests we don’t, that our existence is random, and believing otherwise is optimistically fooling ourselves. Miller wrestles with this question chapter after chapter, questioning the conclusions of those around her and seeking answers in Jordan’s life before finally coming to her own view: the dandelion principle.

A dandelion means something different to everyone. It’s a gardener’s weed, an herbalist’s remedy, an insect’s source of food, a painter’s pigment. “And so it must be with humans, with us,” writes Miller. “From the perspective of the stars of infinity or some eugenic dream of perfection, sure, one human life might not seem to matter.”

“But that was just one of infinite perspectives,” Miller decides. “This was what Darwin was trying so hard to get his readers to see: that there is never just one way of ranking nature’s organisms. To get stuck on a single hierarchy is to miss the bigger picture, the messy truth of nature.” Good science, she suggests, must go beyond the borders we impose on nature and recognize the complexity we cannot fully comprehend.

Jordan authored a book called The Philosophy of Despair. In his book, says Miller, “David confesses that the trouble with the scientific worldview was that when you pointed it at the meaning of life, it showed you one thing. Futility.”

So what are we supposed to do? Without a point, what reason is there to go on? In his book, Jordan says that “Happiness comes from doing, helping, working, loving, fighting, conquering.”

Maybe there are a lot of reasons to go on living even if there isn’t some grand point to existence. Maybe it’s about how we see the dandelions — the people and animals and plants and earth and universe around us. Maybe there is something to the idea of just appreciating the fact we, and all of this around us, even exists in the first place.

At least, that’s the takeaway I had from Miller’s book. And it left me feeling just a tiny bit more hopeful than before.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store