Melville’s Moby-Dick can be interpreted as a forward thinking piece of literature in the field of classification of species and in the early field of evolution. From this perspective, Melville presents opinions that represent a more scientific way of considering species as did Linnaeus when coming up with his classification system. The consideration of whales in Moby-Dick also shows the type of thinking that Darwin employed to reach the logical conclusions of survival of the fittest and evolution in On the Origin of Species, published eight years later. Melville, Linnaeus, and Darwin, as Ishmael in Moby-Dick, may be seen as prophets spreading information and a new way of thinking, but rather than this mentality coming from God, stemming from direct observation and rationality.
Cetology is the first chapter in Moby-Dick with the purpose of classification of the whales as a species. This is the first chapter when the issues of species are presented and the chapter is presented in a text book like fashion. Classification of species as a science during this period in history was booming with the high rate of discovery of new species through the acquisition and exploration of new lands. In this chapter, major scientists in the field who created the theoretical environment possible for Darwin to make his discoveries are mentioned including Linnaeus, Beale, Lyell, and Cuvier. Darwin himself wrote later in life “Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods”(Young 47). Even though they did not exactly present ideas that would agree with evolution, they provided pieces to the puzzle for Darwin to put together (Young 47). When discussing the classification of animals, one cannot ignore Linnaeus as he created the system of division, classification and nomenclature of animal and plant species beginning in the 1730’s that has been used for over two hundred years (Young 48). Linnaeus set out to create a classification system that reflected the natural ordained order and the result was a convoluted tree-like system of all the species. When created, it was seen as a clean way to organize god’s creations, however Linnaeus stumbled upon many difficulties which led to the doubt in the belief that species were distinct entities. The constant influx of previously unknown organisms with the discovery of new lands during the colonial period provided a mess of the job of creating order and bringing together species upon deciding which similarities to classify based on and which differences to ignore. Melville presents this issue in Cetology in the problem with classifying the numerous species of whales. In discussing which part to use to classify as “whale” it is stated “in various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations (of characteristics); or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis”(Melville 176). The solution to this as presented by Ishmael is to then “boldly sort them”(176). And in Cetology, these distinctions are crudely shown by comparing some whales features to the others and creating three vague groups in which to organize the species. While Ishmael goes on to describe twelve types of whales in detail, he concludes by presenting a list of uncertain whales of which he does not know enough about to classify and states that perhaps they can be fitted into the already loose arbitrary system of classification. This difficulty with distinguishing the types of whales shows the problem of classification and the problem with the traditional concept of a species. As Ishmael stumbles across the difficulty in Cetology, so did Linnaeus in defining what are supposed to be separate entities yet when looking at all the differences and similarities, defining a species is done by drawing a crude line for organizational purposes rather than reflecting god’s perfect order. A species, and the species that Linnaeus set about to define was one that was distinct and perfect, made by God during the seven days of creation. Yet all this variation provided a complicated picture of creation and a more complicated picture of other biblical events such as the story of the flood and fitting two of every animal onto a ship. In a time when the Bible was to be considered fact, discovery thousands of new species provided logistical problems. Linnaeus’ tree of classification then became more a suggestion of a “family tree, a genealogy”(Weiner, 23).
Linnaeus is directly mentioned in Cetology in regards to the classification of whales as being distinct from fish. Ishmael states in a critical way “of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shads, alewires and herring, against Linnaeus’s edict were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan”(Melville 171). He then further goes so far as to hint that this classification is “humbug” and then glosses over the difference between whales and fish as “lungs and warm blood” (Melville 172). This is a very interesting place for Melville to mention and disagree with Linnaeus, as even though it may seem counterintuitive place water dwelling animals on a similar level as warm blooded mammals like deer and even humans, Linnaeus is correct in distinguishing based on similar heredity in isolating whales. Where this point may seem to be a step backwards in representing a forward thinking evolutionary text, the whale is classically a puzzling organism in evolutionary study and it may be enough that this issue is brought up in the text. Why it would make sense from an evolution standpoint for an organism with lungs to develop through being better suited to the environment to live underwater, is a wonder, but the question can be flipped to ask why an all knowing god would create a creature with lungs to live in the sea, which is a question answered in the asking. While perhaps it is easier to see a link between species such as dogs and wolves when beginning to understand inheritance and evolution, it is understandably more if not the most difficult to comprehend whales into this scheme. Additionally Ishmael is not Melville. Linnaeus in the process of study would be much more able to make claims about whales from a library. Ishmael a fictional character in the whale industry working with fisherman would be laughed at if he gave this assumption. In this way perhaps Ishmael can be excused for his comments against Linnaeus as being a fisherman and given the strange nature of whales as creatures of evolution in general. After leaving the point in Cetology concerning the whale being warm-blooded, more forward thinking on the matter is present in later passages on the subject.
In addition to the classification problem presented, the way in which the whale is described first by the function of its features makes Moby-Dick a forward thinking evolutionary text. Understanding the function of features of animals is essential to evolutionary study as a feature that is better for performing a function for passing on genes is the mechanism by which species developed. Function is less important to the fixed Biblical understanding of species because function was not the sole determining factor in their creation. It is one thing to wonder at how god created such intricate animals that are perfect for their environments. But understanding function and small differences between those of a similar species leads to understanding that species are suited for their environments because those environments of their ancestors created their genetic history. When discussing the tail of a whale after commenting on its “appalling beauty” and “titanism of power”, Ishmael proceeds to outline in great detail the five motions of the whale’s tail: “First when used as a fin when used as a fin for progression; second, when used as a mace in battle; Third, in sweeping; Fourth in lobtailing; Fifth in peaking flukes”(Melville 438). Interpreting this from an evolutionary way, the five specific and important motions of the whale’s tail can be seen as a testament for how this sort of appendage would be advantageous for a creature like the whale to develop including as mentioned by Ishmael, for protection and for fights over mates. In evolutionary theory, all features serve some survival or reproductive purpose. The outline given of all of the intricate uses the whale has for its tail and how essential it is for survival brings together again the idea of function being directly tied with the creation and definition of a particular species.
Another interesting passage to consider when discussing form and function is when Ishmael is describing the Right Whale and the Sperm whale and their differences as they are being suspended from the ship. This sort of comparison of similar species is interesting because it is along the same lines of what led Darwin to write On the Origin of Species (Weiner 27). In the chapters The Sperm Whale’s Head – Contrasted View and The Right Whale’s Head – Contrasted View, Ishmael presents the differing features of the two types of whales including their size, jaws, and the presence of lack of oil and teeth. When describing the Right Whale, Ishmael discusses a possible purpose to the hairy fibers that are present in this type of whale rather than teeth as being “through which [it] strains the water, and in whose intricacies he retains the small fish”(Melville 392). While the purpose of the teeth in the sperm whale are not considered in these chapters, it could be speculated as defensive would is mentioned briefly in the passage with the squid. The fact though, that the function and differences between the two species is considered shows and the depth in which they are considered represents an objective way of approaching the study of species. Listing the facts and minute details through observation and previous knowledge shows a scientific approach to the study of species. This is different from the crude classification system employed earlier as it is more detailed oriented and is similar to way that Darwin was able to come to his conclusions through careful reason and tedious observations (Weiner 27). While going back and forth on the ship, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities to imagine Ishmael having similar thoughts concerning the differences between these two types of whales as Darwin did when comparing finches.
A final, and perhaps the most prophetic, way in which Moby-Dick represents a progressive text in the field of evolution is the way in which understanding the characteristics of whales, allows Ishmael to criticize texts from the Old Testament. The chapter Jonah Historically Regarded presents criticism of the biblical passage as historical fact. First Ishmael presents confusion as to the type of whale that could possibly have swallowed Jonah and the problems with the anatomical description given in the Bible. Then he asks “Jonah was swallowed by the whale in the Mediterranean Sea, and after three days he was vomited up somewhere within three day’s journey of Nineveh, a city on the Tigris, very much more than three days’ journey across from the nearest point of the Mediterranean coast. How is that”(Melville 427). This question is a direct criticism to the facts in the Bible and is a bold one to ask. Yet this criticism is based on the logical knowledge of whales from objective observation of those in the whaling business. The answer to this question Ishmael gives by saying “For by a Portuguese Catholic priest, this very idea of Jonah’s going to Nineveh via the Cape of Good Hope was advanced as a signal magnification of the general miracle”(Melville 428). This incredible voyage of the whale, though not presented as the real miracle in the Bible can be explained as part of the miracle. Ishmael correctly states that in religion, when things cannot be objectively understood or when they conflict with known facts, a god can still be the answer as by most religions’ definitions, god is all powerful. Through classification and study, Linnaeus and Darwin came across similar more serious conflicts with religion. Trying to tie in religion with new scientific knowledge was difficult. Linnaeus in particular strove to keep the two together by becoming imaginative. His picture of the great flood became one with the creation story in which there was a mountain with all of the climates necessary for the different types of species (Young 53). The answer to the conflicts of the system of classification and later evolution with the Bible became more miracles. Though to the scientific minds of Linnaeus, Darwin and arguably Melville, the miracle explanation cannot have been a satisfying one. A scientific mind requires doubt and observation and a miracle requires the suppression of both. In that way, the chapter about Jonah in Moby-Dick mirrors the problem that was beginning and hasn’t ended with evolution and science and religion.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.
Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Young, David. The Discovery of Evolution. Cambridge:University Press, 2007.