Herman Melville, Science Writer

By Carl Zimmer | November 11, 2012 11:00 am

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into a project called “Moby Dick Big Read.” Plymouth University in England is posting a reading of Moby Dick, one chapter a day. The readers are a mix of writers, artists, and actors, including Tilda Swinton.  They are also posting the chapters on SoundCloud, which makes them very easy to embed. Here is one of my personal favorites, Chapter 32, “Cetology.”

When I was an English major in college, I read Moby Dick under the guidance of English professors and literary critics. They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?

I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.

“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.

The people I know who don’t like the “whale stuff” in Moby Dick probably hate this chapter. It seems to do nothing but grind the Ahab-centered story line to a halt. (No movie version of Moby Dick has put “Cetology” on film.) But do you really think that a writer like Melville would just randomly wedge a chapter like “Cetology” into a novel for no reason–not to mention the dozens of other chapters just like it? Or perhaps it would be worth trying to find out what Melville had in mind, even if you might have to do a bit of outside reading about Carl Linnaeus or Richard Owen? It would be quite something if students could be co-taught Moby Dick by English professors and biologists.

“Cetology” is organized, explicitly, as a catalog, but don’t let the systematic divisions of its catalog put you off. This is science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing. Listen to the words he uses to describe each species. If you go whale watching some day and are lucky enough to spot a fin whale raising its sundial-like dorsal fin above the water, chances are you will utter to yourself, “gnomon.” 


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Comments (35)

  1. Tomato Addict

    “adventures Captain Ahab” needs a “with”.

    [CZ: Thanks. Fixed.]

  2. Yes. I read unabridged Moby Dick many years ago (I was perhaps 10 or 12 at the time). Only once. And the Cetology chapter is pretty much the only thing I remember to this day. Of course, I was dismayed by how wrong it was on biology, because I was too young to understand the historical context of the book. Perhaps I should re-read it now, with deeper understanding.

    [CZ: You won’t regret, Bora. (And now you have the option of a spoken version.)]

    Great, I will.

  3. Jody Bower

    I had the great good luck to read the unabridged Moby-Dick in graduate school with Dennis Patrick Slattery, who has made quite a study of the work. Sad that Melville never got the recognition for this book in life that he deserved. “The Grand Armada” is perhaps my favorite chapter. We read the Norton Annotated version and I was also riveted by the appended descriptions of the actual sinking of a whaling vessel by a sperm whale that inspired the story.

  4. I also read the unabridged version in high school, and enjoyed all the chapters on whaling and Cetology. I recommended to my teenage daughter that she do the same, and she did not regret it. I’ll have to go back and re-read it.

  5. Not this English professor!

    Thanks for your post—I love Moby-Dick and Melville. But as an English professor, I have to chime in to say that I hope your experience in college wasn’t a representative one…

    I agree that it’s a book about energy, and that Melville was mapping out a whole way of life with the book. Whaling was to the New England economy what oil now is in the Middle East, what corn is to the midwest, what meat-packing was to turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago. By telling the story of Ishmael’s and Ahab’s experience alongside the stories of science and technology, Melville encourages us to compare the different ways of knowing the world that scientific catalogues and narrative understanding can give us. Perhaps he’s asking us something like, “When does our drive to master the world by knowing it scientifically blind us to important ethical, ecological, and human considerations?” That desire to compare different ways of knowing the world has been a major strand through American literature to the present day: see the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Marianne Moore, or Invisible Man, The Sound and the Fury, or Infinite Jest.

    I’d absolutely agree—as many English professors would, I’m sure!—that many of the most beautiful, most thought-provoking, and wildest passages of Moby-Dick are on the whale’s biology, on the techniques of the whalers, and on the technological details of the boats.

    How much of an “open secret” is it that these are some of the best parts of Moby-Dick? Well, let’s just say that in The Big Read, the director John Waters knew to head straight for chapter 95, “The Cassock.”*

    *Yes, that’s the part you’d think John Waters would go for, it’s just one page long, and absolutely worth reading right now: http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Mel2Mob.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=95&division=div1

    [CZ: Thanks for your comment. As for my own experience, what can I say? It was the mid-1980s at Yale, deconstruction was in the air, etc. I’m glad you agree that the biology, etc., are some of the best parts of the book.]

  6. Melville was a first-rate legal scholar as well. Chapter 89, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish”:


  7. How funny, I also wrote about Moby Dick this week when discussing the sighting of the world’s rarest whale species (the space-toothed whale). I must confess that I started it last summer and have yet to reach the end (after leaving my copy on a plane) but I really enjoyed the ‘Cetology’ chapter. My blog post is here: http://floramalein.com/2012/11/07/call-me-ishmael/

  8. Yes! My favourite chapter as well. I can recall (not so long ago – I had the book on my shelves for nearly forty years before I actually read it) giggling with joy as I read it.

  9. Make that spade-toothed not space-toothed!

  10. Anne Boyd

    At Brown University a few (ahem) years ago, I took Ken Miller’s introductory biology class. I had no requirement to take the course, but I was fascinated by biology, and Miller’s class was terrific. Not only is he a fantastic teacher, but the course was designed to put science in a cultural context, and assigned readings included The Double Helix”, “A Feeling for the Organism” (biography of Barbara McClintock), a biography of Ernest Everett Just, and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galápagos”, among others I can’t recall. I think we also read Richard Dawkins and perhaps E.O. Wilson – I definitely remember a lively discussion section on sociobiology, which was a hot topic at the time (1986ish).

    The course has evolved over the decades, but looking it up now, it’s still taught by Ken Miller and it seems that the core philosophy is unchanged: http://www.brown.edu/Courses/BI0020_Miller/description.html (“Concentration” is Brown-ese for “major”.) And Ken Miller, evolutionary biologist, has since become famous on the lecture circuit as the author of “Finding Darwin’s God.”

    In the academy, it can be difficult to build bridges between the respective ‘silos’ of science and the humanities. Outside the walls, the relationship between science and the broader culture is very troubled. To make informed decisions as citizens, consumers, patients, etc., ideally those of us who are not scientists should have a good *educated layperson’s* understanding of science, which unfortunately most don’t. (Here I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir.) Conversely, scientists could use more tools from the humanities toolkit for communicating their knowledge (and its limits) to the public, awareness of the cultural and political context in which they are operating, and, I’d suggest, critical examination of their own assumptions.

    To get back to Moby Dick, I think it’s interesting to consider the cognitive shift the reader needs to make between following the story and suddenly encountering one of Melville’s “digressions.” The “Cetology” section is only the most prominent of these. I think it’s the abrupt changes between one kind of narrative and another that makes readers strip their gears, not necessarily the independent merits of the different kinds of content. I wonder what’s going on neurologically there. Pattern-making, I guess. People looove narrative, seek it out, create it where it doesn’t exist. It’s a kind of lulling enjoyment, which Melville seems determined to disrupt repeatedly. Getting kicked out of the narrative trance is startling, but looking at the narrative critically requires that kind of awakening. (In film theory class they always made us watch each film twice, because the first time around you’re hypnotized by the story and it’s easier to go meta on subsequent viewings.) I think I could draw a parallel between that problem and the ease with which people fall for, and cling to, false narratives about the natural world. Which is definitely a subject for science writing.

  11. Ann

    Love this! Didn’t know you were a fellow English major in college. Explains a lot!

  12. Before I read Moby-Dick I knew only that it concerned an epic hunt for a whale. So chapters such as ‘Cetology’ took me completely by surprise, and gave the book a breadth and depth well beyond what the narrative alone – superb though it is – would have accomplished. For an acknowledged classic, it is in some ways a very strange book.

  13. Wonderful post, Carl. One of the people behind the “Moby Dick Big Read” is Philip Hoare. I can highly recommend his recent book “The Whale” (in the UK, “Leviathan, or the Whale”). It’s a fantastic read, full of his personal experiences with whales and “Moby Dick,” science, history, and whale oil economics. I had always thought of whaling as just a New England industry but learned from him about the other whaling centers around the world, as well as the fact that the history of whaling stretches back into the 1600s. If you’re still not sure you want to tackle “Moby Dick,” read Hoare’s book first, and I bet you’ll go straight to Melville, either in print or via this great audio project.

  14. David B. Benson

    As I understand it, Melville stumbled across a copy of “Stove by a Whale” and was so taken with the true story that he traveled to visit the author. Then he wrote “Moby Dick”.

    Both are fine, but I found the true account the more heartwrenching.

  15. I enjoyed the essay but it did seem to assume Melville was supposed to be writing science and that English teachers have been wicked in failing to teach science. Sorry, it is a novel, and though it can be taught in a great many ways (by all means use it in a science course or a history of science course), there is only so much time. One English course is hardly enough time to teach it all (for example, the cetacea chapter might refer to the history of science paradigms but also the symbolism of the whales as standing for different ethnicities and how we use them/think of them, so which area do you think an English teacher should spend time on?). So, pick your poison, but you must drink it.

    [CZ: Sorry, but I’ve heard my share of English professors scoff at the science sections as little more than tedium. And while some teachers may indeed be pressed for time, I actually took a whole semester-long class on Melville where the science got skipped over. (Other than that omission, it was a great class.)

  16. Just a brief note from a social science professor that another of Melville’s great intellectual talent was anthropological: He had a piercing gaze (especially given his context in antebellum United States) into cultural difference and perspectivalism (the notion that culture frames and shapes how you see the world) and he had a respect unusual for his time for such differences. He comes pretty close to a full deconstruction of the social origins of “race” in Moby Dick and others of his works. His cultural insights span his entire opus. I do not meant to imply that he was perfectly critical or would pass a “race” limtmus test today; but rather that for his context, he was brilliantly aware of the implications of cultural difference in ways that still inspire.

  17. Jim Prall

    I’ve been listening to the free audiobook of the unabridged Moby Dick provided by librivox.org. It is quite a vast undertaking. I found Melville fascinating yet a bit frustrating, given to going off on really extended tangents.
    The cetology chapter had the unsettling quality of giving what amount to proto-footnotes, though without quite enough information to know just what Melville was trying to cite in some cases. Since the book is fiction, it’s hard to know if there were times when he was “citing” a real-world source I might be able to trace and when it was simply an imagined source for literary effect (such as his supposed inventor of the crow’s-nest, of whom I could find no trace online.)
    I did track down one real-life source that matched well in the Royal Navy figure who catalogued whale sightings by map grid and date – that turned out to be a real published work.
    That brings to mind the inspiring bit I found when I visited the website of the world’s oldest science journal, the Philosphical Transactions of the Royal Society. They have now scanned in the earliest issues from the 1660’s and posted them. I enjoyed going through an article in vol. 2, which sets out a grand vision for scientific oceanography, including discussions of available tools for taking water samples at depth. http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/23-32.toc – see the 9th item, “Directions for Observations and Experiments to Be Made by Masters of Ships, Pilots, and Other Fit Persons in Their Sea-Voyages” (cite as: Phil. Trans. 1666 2 433-448; doi:10.1098/rstl.1666.0009)
    It’s a bit mind-boggling that this 1666 work now has a DOI 😎
    And of course the Royal Navy and merchant marine fleet carried out these directives over the centuries since, as did their U.S. counterparts, yielding treasure troves of raw data that are just now beginning to be digitized and made available online. See in particular http://www.oldweather.org

  18. Somehow, in spite of being an English major in college, I never had this book assigned to me. That’s OK, though, because I’ve read it several times on my own. Now I’m inspired to read it again, right after I finish yet another read of Little Dorrit.

  19. john naddaf

    and i thought moby dick was a romance novel….having only listened to a reading of ch 33 i maybe misinformed in my question,,,but,cetology could be easily confused by seedology,in the sound of the words,,is that a coincidence,or has it been left open to interpretation??

  20. AlexL

    I never read Moby Dick in school but I decided to put it on my reading list sometime ago when reading that you and Rebecca Stott have a fascination with it. How can two science writers I admire be wrong? Looks like I’ll have to bump the book higher on my list.

  21. Houston Briggs

    I am just now finishing Moby Dick, the unabridged audio book narrated by William Hootkins, a 23 – 24 hour listen. It is well worth the time. I was not expecting the chapter on cetology but have learned a great deal from it. Although I do not remember having read it before I have experienced deja vu on several occasions.

  22. Thank you for a lovely essay. It and many of the comments here testify to the astonishing breadth of the novel’s genius. Yes, Melville was a science writer. And an anthropologist. And a theologian. And a psychologist…etcetera, etcetera. Sadly, ham fisted teaching of the book can harm appreciation of its myriad gifts in lots of ways. I remember being assigned in my high school English class to list five symbols per chapter on index cards, a rote exercise that failed to inspire a restless teenager.

    Today I write about the history and philosophy of technology, and so tend to focus on Melville’s brilliant commentary from any number of perspectives on the Industrial Revolution. I recently wrote an essay on this prompted by Google’s somewhat incongruous celebration of the anniversary of Moby Dick’s publication with an illustration on its search page:


  23. Ellen

    The “Big-Read” has immersed me once again in what is by far the most mind-expanding book in my experience. Yes, Cetology is wonderful chapter, as are many of the chapters detailing life as actually lived on a whaleship in the 19th century. Over the years I have come to think of Moby Dick as a more-or-less nonfictional account of a brutal, hidden wordl.

  24. Agreed. I read Moby Dick in High School. Then as an English major in college. Then again as a grad student. It was the grad school version that finally got me to read and appreciate Cetology. The initial “Etymology” and “Extracts” chapters are also criminally under-taught. BTW, to discover Melville the Political Scientist, I highly recommend “Mardi”. It too is expansive in scope, but Melville required a lot of sea room to tell the truth.

  25. beejeez

    I love the cetology chapter; it’s one of my favorite parts of the book. Humor, awe of natural grandeur that gives scale to the Pequod’s encounters with whaless … what’s not to love?

  26. Frank Troy


    Great article. I’m a retired English professor with a life-long interest in science. I recently self-published a book on Melville in which I argue that he identified empirical or fact-based knowledge as the only form of knowing that can be trusted, implying, of course, that claims based on religious beliefs cannot be trusted. From the composition of Moby-Dick onward, epistemological themes were central to his writings, and his empiricism is, in effect, his recurring message. If you’re interested, the book is in print and Kindle versions here:


    Thanks again for your insightful article.

  27. Yetsuh Frank

    Nice piece. It’s definitely frustrating how frequently the science sections are set aside in discussions of Moby Dick. For those interested in the beauty and limitations of seeing the world through science I can highly recommend the brief but largely forgotten book The Tree by John Fowles.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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