National Geographic

“Therefore His Shipmates Called Him Mad”: The Science of Moby Dick

One of the best things about a blog is that it can function as a public sketch pad, where I can try out ideas that aren’t quite right for a full-blown magazine feature, book, or newspaper article. Sometimes those verbal sketches can mature into something more.

In November, for example, I was inspired by an online reading of Moby Dick to praise Melville as a science writer. Soon afterwards, I was contacted by the Los Angeles Public Library, which was planning a month-long celebration of the book that has just kicked off. They asked if I would write an essay about the science behind the novel, which they could include in the program for the final event on October 5.

It was a great pleasure to dig deeper into Melville’s life and times, and reflect on how his scatter-shot education in pre-Darwinian biology shaped his book.

Here’s how the piece starts:

“To have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing. What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!”

Ishmael asks himself this question at the beginning of “Cetology,” the thirty-second chapter of Moby Dick. Up till this point, the narrative of Moby Dick, as Ishmael recounts his experiences joining the crew of the Pequod, feels fairly straightforward. Readers who bought the novel when it first came out in 1851 probably found it similar to Melville’s previous novels of the sea, like Mardi and White-Jacket. But then Ishmael abruptly turns into a peculiar sort a naturalist. He dedicates an entire chapter to whale taxonomy in absurdly exhaustive detail. Later in the novel, he writes chapters dedicated to the anatomy of whales, their fossils, and their ecology.

Those chapters put off many readers and critics in Melville’s day. All that science felt like a massive distraction from the central story of Ahab’s mad pursuit of the White Whale. And even today, I’d wager that a lot of readers page quickly through the long passages about whale flukes and whale brains. But the science of Moby Dick is as superfluous to the novel as lungs are to the body. Melville used science to elevate the hunt for a single sperm whale into a metaphysical tragicomedy.

The entire essay is available at the event’s web site. Check it out.

There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Robert C Brooke
    September 12, 2013

    Your essay has physiognomy confused with phrenology.Physiognomy is the science of reading character from people’s faces.Otherwise it was an interesting essay.

  2. Benjamin Lukoff
    September 12, 2013

    That was one of the best chapters of the novel, as far as I am concerned.

  3. Steve Oden
    September 13, 2013

    @Robert, your comment got me to thinking. I couldn’t imagine Mr. Zimmer would make such a blatant error (although I guess he might have) so I did a little looking. Physiognomy doesn’t limit itself to faces – it’s a “study” of physical features. Apparently phrenology is considered a form of physiognomy and was popular in the 19th century for a while. Perhaps the usage of the term physiognomy is a more general one relating either to Ishmael’s attempt to gain insight into the whale via its external features or to the common usage of the term at the time.

  4. Garner Boogaerts
    September 17, 2013

    Another great article, I love when science is connected with the humanities.

  5. Joe bartell
    September 18, 2013

    @Robert, Steve is correct- it was Melville himself who used the term physiognomy in the novel. Phrenology would have been one aspect of physiognomy.

  6. Liz Coleman
    September 23, 2013

    I love how excited Ishmael gets about everything. Moby Dick is what we’d get if Tom Clancy was into whales.

  7. David Bump
    September 23, 2013

    I can’t resist pointing out that what follows after a reference to Melville’s “pre-Darwinian biology” is a quote beginning with “What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!” An allusion and comparison to the impressive creature poetically described in Job 41: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? …” (The Bible, King James version). Leviathan had little in common with whales (for one thing, it was scaly), but the term has often been applied to them, and a fossil whale was named after it … and Mellville!: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/06/photogalleries/100630-leviathan-mellvillei-sperm-whale-fossils-science/
    Later, it was learned that “Leviathan” was already being used for a mastodon, so a transliteration of the original Hebrew was used: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7310/full/nature09381.html

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