The Intersection

Back When Whales Were Fish

i-97b43d561499d14312b21983b4537983-Leviathan.gifMove over, all you monkey trials from primordial American history (and from, like, 2005). Here comes a high stakes whale trial that has been lost to our memories, but that we really should learn about and remember.

I’m talking about the 1818 court case Maurice v. Judd, chronicled in Princeton historian (and former Chris Mooney professor) D. Graham Burnett’s new book Trying Leviathan. Back in those days, Linneaus’s taxonomic system already classified the whale as a mammal, but folk wisdom (rooted, of course, in the Bible) said otherwise. Or as Ishmael puts it in Melville’s Moby Dick: “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.”

The clash between the new naturalists and the old readers of Genesis went on Scopes-esque trial in New York in 1818, due to an arcane argument over whether, for purposes of state regulation, oil taken from whales was the same as oil taken from fish. Burnett narrates the ensuing argument, which pitted emerging science against more traditionally rooted perspectives in the middle of a courtroom.

Everyone is recommending Christmas science books lately, so now it’s my turn–get this one. But don’t listen to me, listen to the New York Observer reviewer, who put it thusly: “Trying Leviathan bristles with insights about the relationships between popular belief, democracy, science and the law that resonate with contemporary controversies over Darwinism and intelligent design.”

Why did Burnett–who taught me at Yale, but is now at Princeton–pick this subject? As he memorably put it to the Boston Globe: “I am a lover of “Moby-Dick” and had decided I wanted to write a book about changing ideas about whales in the modern era – how did these creatures go from monstrous “beasts” to soulful, musical friends of humanity?”

For the answer, read Trying Leviathan–and give it as a gift this holiday season.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    December 19, 2007

    Thank you for the tip! Have a Happy Solstice.

  2. #2 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 19, 2007
  3. #3 Fred Bortz
    December 19, 2007

    Click my name for my review of one of my favorite quirky books, The Whale Book: Whales and Other Marine Animals as Described by Adriaen Coenen in 1585.

    Sheril, this one’s for you, though I can’t recall whether it discusses sea cucumbers.

  4. #4 wolfgang
    December 19, 2007

    Is it time to write a new book about the Democratic war on science?

  5. #5 David Miller
    December 20, 2007

    Just requested it at our local library. Thanks for the heads-up!

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