Thursday, April 26, 2012

Moby-Dick, an Evolutionary Text

In Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, he analyzes society in post WWII, Cold War period, and criticizes his belief that capitalist society encompasses and influences all aspects of life.  Though writing in a much different industrial, technological time his theory on art is can be relevant to understanding and appreciating Moby-Dick.  Marcuse presents the idea that art of the past and what he considers should be the ideal role of art is to offer an alternative, a rational purpose to the widely help, often oppressive societal views: “literature and art were essentially alienation, sustaining and protecting the contradiction […]  they were a rational, cognitive force revealing a dimension of man and nature which was repressed and repelled in reality.”(Marcuse 61).  In this way, Marcuse glorifies art that is transcendent, that moves beyond the constraints of common beliefs of the time to express an unpopular opinion.  Moby-Dick is a strong example of this type of art as a piece of literature presenting emerging evolutionary thought in a time when a fixed Biblical interpretation of species was the predominate belief.  On the Origin of Species, the evolutionary doctrine published by Darwin eight years after Moby-Dick can be used to show how Melville presented and transcended not only the novel as a piece of literature but also importantly popular opinions on species by presenting scientific reason within an epic on whaling.  Leaving Marcuse’s theories on art, this paper will examine two problems with traditional beliefs on species which led to the discovery of evolution and how they were presented in Moby-Dick as well as the unique way in which Melville incorporates scientific observation into his description of whales, comparing with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
The first problem which brought about a revolutionary change in thought in the field of evolution was the issue of classification of species. The problem stemmed from the great influx of knowledge of new species which occurred during in the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries with discovery and colonizing of foreign lands.  The engrained belief that species could be placed into distinct categories, reflecting the fact that they were created distinctly proved very difficult when such wide variations of species and between those of the same species was realized.  The biggest problem to classification is outlined by Darwin in On the Origin of Species as “[t]he existence of groups would have been of simple signification if one group had been exclusively fitted to inhabit the land , and another the water; one to feed on flesh, another on vegetable matter, and so on; but the case is widely different in nature; for it is notorious how commonly members of even the same sub-group have different habits, [ …] dominant species belonging to the larger genera in each class […] vary the most”(Darwin, 351). 
Cetelogy is a chapter in Moby-Dick which reads as almost a classification textbook and discusses the classification of whales.  Ishmael outlines the differences and distinctions between subgroups, however, it can be interpreted as an entire chapter dedicated to representing a specific instance of the problem of classification which helped lead to the discovery of evolution.  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.  The way in which Ishmael has to resort to combining some species together, leaving out others, focusing on some similarities and ignoring others, mirrors the problems of those studying species at the time of Darwin.  It is interesting to note that, it would be one thing for a biologist to say there is great variation even within species, but Melville using whales specifically is a good comprehensible example.  A reader can begin to understand the problem of classification and in this way, Moby-Dick represents art by Marcuse’s definition, in providing a criticism to popular belief and an accessible criticism.  This chapter not only gives background information to the reader but also nudges the reader in an evolutionary direction and in this way attempts to get the reader to transcend beyond the classic interpretation of species.  Further, here is a place where Darwin’s On the Origin of Species can provide a direct answer to the problem of classification, and arguably had it be published after Moby-Dick, it may be speculated that Melville would have included it: “I believe that the arrangement of the groups within each class, in due subordination and relation to the other groups must be strictly genealogical in order to preserve natural order; but that the amount of difference in the several branches or groups, though allied in the same degree by blood to their common progenitor, may differ greatly being due to the different degrees of modification which they have undergone”(Darwin 358).  Darwin’s solution to the problem of classification in Cetelogy is to base the groups off of those related, in present times, related genetically.
Another very relevant issue that brought about study in the field of evolution during the nineteenth century was the discovery of fossils of species that were no longer on the earth.  This contradicted the engrained belief, based off of the story of creation, that species were created at the same time and were still in existence.  Attempts to bring together the story of creation and extinction included theories of times of great catastrophes which destroyed a population of species and that some were saved by means of an ark or divine intervention.  Extinction and the discovery of fossil forms were, on the other hand, great support to the theory of evolution as proof that species change over time.  In On the Origin of Species, Darwin states “the theory of natural selection is grounded on the belief that each new variety and ultimately each new species is produced and maintained by having some advantage over those which it comes in competition and the consequent extinction of the less-favoured forms inevitably follows”(Darwin 278).  Fossils are thus examples of species that died out through the process of evolution but are still very similar to present species because they are their ancestors.  Melville addresses the idea of species, from a very evolutionary perspective in the chapter The Fossil Whale.  Here he states: “I desire to remind the reader, that while in the earlier geological strata there are found the fossils of monsters now almost completely extinct; the subsequent relics discovered in what are called the Tertiary* formations seem the connecting or at any rate intercepted links between the anti-chronical creatures.”(Melville 526). The concept of fossils as outlined in The Fossil Whale is in complete accordance with the theory of evolution in that Melville recognizes their significance as being ancestors of present forms rather than unrelated ancient species, who died from a mysterious catastrophe.  Striking here is the use of the word “link”, to which Darwin spends considerable amount of time in On the Origin of Species discussing transitional forms between past and present species.  Links forms are essential to the theory of evolution as they present support for natural selection through the gradual buildup of advantageous characteristics which result in a change in species, ultimately changing it altogether.  This chapter shows moving beyond fixed theories of species, not only for early evolutionary thought but also into modern evolutionary theory, as biologists in modern times continue to search for these transitional linking forms to greater understand the evolution of species.  In this way, the discussion of fossils represents remarkable forward thinking, and in Marcuse’s way, art.
In addition to the classification problem presented and the issue of extinction and fossils, the way in which the whale is described first by the function of its features makes Moby-Dick a transcendentally scientific piece of literature.  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 develop.  Darwin describes natural selection as “individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind” (Darwin 79).  This process in which change in a species occurs and is based off having physical features better suited to an environment.  From this it can be inferred that all features of an organism if developed through natural selection have a functional purpose. Function is less important to the fixed 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.  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.  The concept of the features of a whale’s mouth and its origin can be further examined by a brief mention in On the Origin of Species as Darwin states: “in North America the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, like a whale insects in the water.  Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of insects were so constant, and if better adapted competition did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more aquatic in their structure and habits with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale” (Darwin 189).  This speculation of Darwin’s expands upon the concept of the features of a whale’s mouth by saying that if it were advantageous, even a bear could develop to become like a whale, and thus providing a potential answer for how the two species of whales developed different mouth features. 
Additionally it is in this similar comparison of related species which lead Darwin to come up with the concept of evolution and the ability to even entertain the thought of a land dwelling mammal like a bear evolving into a whale.  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).  Darwin reflects on the voyage of the beagle in which he made comparisons between species, significantly between finches, that the “most important […] and determin[ing factor to] my whole career was attend[ing] closely to several branches of natural history and […] my power of observation”(Darwin 1).  Melville’s writing, using the example of the different types of whales shows very careful observation and consideration to detail. 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, as it is shown that he attended to the importance of function of features.  In this way, it can be considered forward thinking text in that it presents the reader with a rational reasonable way to approach species.
In conclusion, Moby-Dick can be appreciated as a transcendent piece of literature in the field of evolution and thus can be respected as a great work of art, using Marcuse’s definition of what art should be.  Melville presents the problems which were relevant to leading Darwin to bring together the theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest into the theory of evolution.  By giving the reader an accessible example of the issue of classification and an explanation for fossils, Melville creates questions and theories that On the Origin of Species directly addresses and answers.  Additionally, the use of scientific observation and careful description in Moby-Dick reflects a rational technique and approach to the study of species which moved beyond the thinking of the time in rationality.  Marcuse states “the artistic alienation is the conscious transcendence of the alienate existence – a “higher level” or mediated alienation” (Marcuse 60).  Moby-Dick can be viewed not only as art that reflects an alienation, as it opposed accepted opinion of the time, but also art that is successful in assisting in change of that society.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Beacon, 1991.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.
Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

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