Appreciating the science of Moby Dick, 162 years later


The Los Angeles Public Library is currently hosting a month-long celebration of Moby Dick. They asked National Geographic's Carl Zimmer to pen an essay about the science within the book.

And Zimmer delivers:

Today, over 160 years after the publication of Moby Dick, it takes some work to put ourselves in Melville’s shoes, and to understand science as it existed in the 1840s. The human-centered scheme of the Enlightenment is long gone. Today, we know that our species did not exist at the birth of the world a few thousand years ago. Homo sapiens is 200,000 years old, one of billions of species to exist on a 4.568 billion year old planet—one planet among quadrillions of planets sprinkled across the universe, which itself formed 13 billion years ago.

As humbling as these discoveries may be, the startling fact remains that we made them. We achieved this knowledge about the universe using our limited brains. In hindsight, we can see that Melville was too pessimistic about what science can tell us about the world. And just as Melville used whales to critique science, today we can use whales to critique Melville. Many of mysteries about whales that Melville considered impenetrable are now solved.

Zimmer goes on to detail some of the fascinating facts of whale evolution:

Paleontologists have now dug up the fossils evidence to back up that strange-sounding idea. As far as back as 50 million years ago, they have found the remains of whales with legs. Whales descend from land-walking mammals that gradually adapted to life in the water. Their forelimbs became flippers, and their hind limbs disappeared. Although they took on a fish-like body shape, they remained mammals. They still produced milk to nurse their young. They breathed their nose, which had become a blowhole.

And they then diversified into the living forms of whales. Far from being an arbitrary game, Linnaeus’s taxonomy of whales reflects their evolution. As whales diverged, one lineage evolved baleen, becoming blue whales, humpback whales, and other giants.

The other lineage evolved peg-shaped teeth. They hunted for food by generating loud sounds in their heads that radiated out into the water and echoed off surrounding objects. That lineage gave rise to dolphins, killer whales, and Melville’s inscrutable muse, the sperm whale. The sperm whale’s massive head, filled with enigmatic organs, seemed to Melville beyond human understanding. We now know that it is a gigantic listening device, shaped by tens of millions of years of evolution.

If you like Moby Dick, science or just knowing incredible things, you should read the rest.

And because white whales will always be fascinating, here's Migaloo, the white humpback whale!

Migaloo, la ballena albina jorobada. Vista por primera vez en 1991

TOP PHOTO: Mocha Dick, a giant whale made of felt.

BOTTOM PHOTO and VIDEO: Meet Migaloo, the white humpback whale! Yes, I know Moby Dick was a sperm whale. But look how amazing Migaloo is! More Migaloo photos at My Modern Met.

Tags: Animals | Whales