In "Moby-Dick," Ishmael declares, "Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that a whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me." Few readers today know just how much argument Ishmael is waiving aside. In fact, Melville's antihero here takes sides in one of the great controversies of the early nineteenth ...
In "Moby-Dick," Ishmael declares, "Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that a whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me." Few readers today know just how much argument Ishmael is waiving aside. In fact, Melville's antihero here takes sides in one of the great controversies of the early nineteenth century--one that ultimately had to be resolved in the courts of New York City. In "Trying Leviathan," D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular--and biblically sanctioned--view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature--and how we know it--was at stake. Burnett vividly recreates the trial, during which a parade of experts--pea-coated whalemen, pompous philosophers, Jacobin lawyers--took the witness stand, brandishing books, drawings, and anatomical reports, and telling tall tales from whaling voyages. Falling in the middle of the century between Linnaeus and Darwin, the trial dramatized a revolutionary period that saw radical transformations in the understanding of the natural world. Out went comfortable biblical categories, and in came new sorting methods based on the minutiae of interior anatomy--and louche details about the sexual behaviors of God's creatures. When leviathan breached in New York in 1818, this strange beast churned both the natural and social orders--and not everyone would survive.
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Publishers Weekly, 2007-10-01 It's science itself that was put on trial in 1818 in a dispute over a $75 inspection fee, as related in this fascinating account. Burdick (Masters of All They Surveyed), director of Princeton's history of science program, illuminates the convergence of commerce, science and shifting views of the natural world and human exploitation of it. The case of Maurice v. Judd arose from merchant Samuel Judd's refusal to pay the inspector's fee on three casks of spermaceti oil, claiming inspection was required only for fish oil, not whale oil. The jury heard the case in a "gloriously feisty public forum" as the Linnaean classification system was debated, with Samuel Latham Mitchill, a local "patriarch of natural history," testifying that the whale was indeed not a fish. The plaintiff's lawyers argued against a system that said whales, monkeys and humans were related, and raised the threat to civil order if scientists were allowed to interpret legal statutes. Burnett's look at the trial and its fallout adds a historical dimension to debates caused by science's role in the legal sphere, especially when it introduces new concepts. 16 pages of color illus., 19 b&w illus. (Dec.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
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