Are Whales Fish? Author D. Graham Burnett Discusses

Part 1 | Part 2

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The World's Fair is pleased to offer the following discussion about a most unique and forceful book, Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature (Princeton University Press, 2007), with its author D. Graham Burnett. He is associate professor of history at Princeton University.


Professor Burnett is the author of three previous books, Masters of All They Surveyed (Chicago University Press, 2000), A Trial by Jury (Knopf, 2001), and Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest (American Philosophical Society, 2005), numerous articles, and, last year, a guest-edited focus section in the journal Isis on science and the law. Trying Leviathan, his latest, is difficult to summarize, except to note its strength of voice and sheer determination to present the rough texture of an otherwise unexplored debate about science, taxonomy, comparative anatomy, and how new sciences "fit in the public and legal imagination" (to quote The Financial Times). Bringing the history and philosophy of science into the context of the Early American Republic, its ostensible center is a court trial in New York City starting in late 1818. The question of the trial: "Are whales fish?" Hardly relegated to the 1800s, this case of science in the court stands in for wide-ranging and longstanding questions about epistemology, authority, and cultural credibility. The book has received wide and positive review, in forums spanning diverse outlets from the New York Times, Nature, and The Village Voice to Green Theory and Praxis, The New York Observer, and the afore-quoted Financial Times. It was even recently heralded by The Onion, I kid you not, as one of six books chosen for their "Non-lame Summer Reading" list, not to mention that Scienceblogs own Chris Mooney is apparently a fan as well. Oh, or listen in at Talking History if you want the aural experience. What is more, Trying Leviathan has already won the 2008 New York City Book Award and the 2008 Hermalyn Award for Urban History, with more accolades surely to follow.

This is the eleventh in our series of "Author Meets Bloggers" posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a two-part conversation about Trying Leviathan. We encourage all questions and comments.

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THE WORLD'S FAIR: It's late winter of 1818, and here we are in the gallery of the Mayor's Court in New York City. We, along with plenty of other Manhattanites, have come to see the opening arguments in Maurice v. Judd, the case that everyone it talking about. Why does anyone care? What is going on?

D. GRAHAM BURNETT: Maurice v. Judd seized the attention of New Yorkers - and eventually of the early republic as a whole - because it brought to law a queer question about the order of nature and the practice of science. At issue was a matter of taxonomy: the case hinged on whether whales were fish.

WF: You're not going to tell us the answer, are you? Or, for those legions of scienceblog readers who know well enough that whales are not fish, you aren't going to tell us how this case went down?

DGB: Indeed, I'm not.

WF: How did a problem like that ever come to court?

DGB: In 1818 New York State passed a law requiring the inspection of all "fish oil." When the merchant Samuel Judd refused to let the inspector James Maurice inspect three barrels of "spermaceti oil" (a waxy goo that comes from Sperm whales), on the grounds that the new taxonomy coming out of Paris stipulated that whales weren't fish, the stage was set for a legal showdown that put natural history on the witness stand.

WF: How did you come upon this case, and how did you decide that it warranted such full treatment?

DGB: I stumbled on some published records of the case in the course of an exhaustive bibliographical survey of texts on whales. I was embarking on a study of the scientific investigation of cetaceans (a project inspired in large part by Moby-Dick), and I thought I should just scan everything that was out there. I recall Carlo Ginzburg talking at Princeton more than a decade ago about the unprecedented, curious, and powerful kinds of historical investigation that were becoming possible as a result of the staggering new digital resources: the historiographical "serendipities" afforded by catalogues like RLIN and OCLC. Trying Leviathan was born of this sort of "random walk" through the new databases. Once I had a hold on the tail of the tale, I basically just held on, and got pulled deeper and deeper. Initially I had thought I might use the case as an opener in a very different book (one more about whales, and less about the larger history of systematics and taxonomy and natural knowledge in the early republic), but as the leads kept turning up additional source material - and as it became clear that the story of Maurice v. Judd would allow me to open a host of rich questions in the history of science - I reframed the project as a book structured around the case itself.

WF: You build the book in a Rashomon-like way, by reconstructing what different sorts of people knew about the whale: fishermen and whalers have one sort of knowledge; ordinary working folks have their own ideas; learned professors have their books and comparative anatomy; like the naturalists, those who worked with and sold whale products possessed a specialized expertise, but it bore little relation to the teaching of the schools. In the courtroom all these different kinds of knowledge, and different ways of knowing, had to square-off. I think this was my favorite part of the book, and it kept me thinking about the issue of authority. Whose views really held sway, whose voice and perspective was more valued?

DGB: Well, you put your finger on a central concern of Trying Leviathan. Like most historians of science, I am preoccupied by the general problem of understanding, in a historically sensitive way, how it is that certain individuals accede to the enviable position of being able to speak, authoritatively, for what is "really real" about the natural world. What techniques and conditions account for this privilege in a given time and place? Because of their agonistic structure and broad social significance, courts are important places to observe the dynamics of this process (I recently edited a "FOCUS" section of Isis on "Science and the Law" which tries to generalize about the opportunities that legal processes afford historians of science). Without giving away the ending of the book, I can certainly say that the question of authority - the authority of science, of "the people," of Europe - is at the heart of this story.

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Pt 1 | Pt 2

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I: Michael Egan on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism
II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy
III: Saul Halfon on population , demography, and women's empowerment
IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics
V: David Hess on Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry
VI: Lizzie Grossman on e-trash and global environmental policy
VII: Shobita Parthasarathy on genetics and the politics of Science and Technology
VIII: Aaron Sachs on Humboldt and the explorer-origins of environmentalism
IX: Jan Golinski on British Enlightenment culture and the Weather
X: Kelly Joyce on MRI and Visual Knowledge


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