Book Report: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

This is a book about trying to find your place in the world. Lulu Miller was always looking for a tried and true path through life, and She had a hard time as a kid. Her father was a scientist who had very strong beliefs about his atheism and the beauty and value of science. Though he thought that there was nothing special or holy about other people, he said that you still had to pretend like there was and treat other people well.

Lulu was looking for a template to base her life on. She became enamored with the story of David Starr Jordan, the original president of Stanford University. She tried to figure out how this nerdy taxonomist was able to conquer the world. He was a man who categorized things. He was the world expert on categorizing fish who somehow became a university president. Even when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his entire collection, he didn’t let that get him down. He just sewed the labels on to as many fish as he could find(1)Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off again! and built an even greater collection.

This inner confidence is what made him so attractive. While Jordan claimed to be a humble professor, he had his portion of hubris. Thinking he knew better than other people about the world, he did some selfish things. Miller makes the case that he may have poisoned Mrs. Stanford, the matriarch of the University, and if not, he definitely covered it up.

Later in his life, this confidence turned evil. Jordan was an early proponent of eugenics and the theory of a master race. While we think of creating a master race as being something the Nazis invented, the United States built much of this theory. As a taxonomist he specialized in categorization and he thought that he could organize a better human race. Miller realizes that self-confidence has it’s own problems. She quotes psychologists who believe that building too much self-confidence in kids is over-rated and even harmful. She says, “I think of these psychologists as the quiet, ragtag troop of Cheerleaders for Low Self-Worth. Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!”

Their pom-poms are droopy. They whisper when they cheer. Be HUMBLE. Be BLUE! Who’s the best? NOT YOU!

Lulu realizes that there is no best person. The whole point of evolution is that we’re always changing. It’s the variation that makes evolution useful and makes it so robust. You can’t create a better human population by manually culling it and trying to get better results and sterilizing people that you think are inferior. You need to let nature and variation play out.

As Steven Pinker says in How the Mind Works, variation has a huge benefit. That’s why we have sexual reproduction.

From a germ’s point of view, you are a big yummy mound of cheesecake, there for the eating. Your body takes a different view, and has evolved a battery of defenses, from your skin to your immune system, to keep them out or do them in. An evolutionary arms race goes on between hosts and pathogens, though a better analogy might be an escalating contest between lockpickers and locksmiths. Germs are small, and they evolve diabolical tricks for infiltrating and hijacking the machinery of the cells, for skimming off its raw materials, and for passing themselves off as the body’s own tissues to escape the surveillance of the immune system. The body responds with better security systems, but the germs have a built-in advantage: there are more of them and they can breed millions of times faster, which makes them evolve faster. They can evolve substantially within the lifetime of a host. Whatever molecular locks the body has evolved, the pathogens can evolve keys to open them.

Now, if an organism is asexual, once the pathogens crack the safe of its body they also have cracked the safes of its children and siblings. Sexual reproduction is a way of changing the locks once a generation. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against the local germs. Its molecular locks have a different combination of pins, so the germs have to start evolving new keys from scratch. A malevolent pathogen is the one thing in the world that rewards change for change’s sake.

Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works.

It’s easy for us to look in the past and think that ideas about genetic selection are behind us, but let’s consider the banana. Did you realize that every banana you’ve eaten looks similar? That’s because they’re all the same variety: the Cavendish banana. This is a banana that’s quite firm easy to ship and relatively tasty. It has a strong case to be made as the world’s best banana from an economic perspective. However, a disease in Australia caused all of their banana trees to be destroyed.(2)Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.

We’re starting to cull our own genes. That Atlantic magazine recently published The Last Children of Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is the canary in the coal mine of genetic selection. Genetic testing has its benefits. Having a baby with a horrible genetic disease is definitely something that should be avoided. However, Down Syndrome is something else. People can live long and sweet lives with Down Syndrome. In a few generations, there won’t be any people with Down Syndrome left. It’s very much on the edge of what we should be allowed to select for, and I’m sure that things will only get more interesting and dicey.

Right now, if you have in vitro fertilization you can choose some of the characteristics of the child, like whether you want to select for a boy or a girl. I have a friend who is in this situation. For her first child, they chose the strongest embryo—the one most likely to survive. It’s hard to blame her there. But for the second child, there were five embryos in a freezer in the Midwest. How was she supposed to decide which embryo would be given the kiss of life? I told her this is a good time to just accept the power of G-d. To me, G-d created randomness and variation and we should let it do its thing. Science has given us an enormous number of benefits, like in vitro fertilization for people who can’t have kids, but we need to do our best to not squeeze all the randomness out of life.


1 Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off again!
2 Other parts of the world, like Singapore, have a much larger variety of bananas than I’ve eaten.