Legislating Reality

The follies that plague humankind come in an almost cyclical form. As old Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” I just finished D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan: The Nineteen-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. Other than the fact that the subtitle accounts for a good portion of the book, this account shows just how little we’ve progressed. At the heart of the book is Maurice v. Judd, a New York case of 1818 in which a whale merchant contested an assessor’s fee on “fish oil” by claiming a whale was not a fish. In “trial of the century” style, star witnesses were called in, bringing science to the docket. It was known, even in these pre-Origin of Species days, that a whale was a mammal, but what soon became clear as Burnett laid out the facts of the case was that the Bible held sway. Genesis divides the classes of nature into beasts, birds, and fish. This simplistic taxonomy was held by many in the nineteenth century to be a sacred statement of fact. If whales lived in the water, they were fish. The fact that they nurse their young, who are born live, and that they share the skeletal template of land creatures and have warm blood, and breathe through lungs, simply did not matter. If Genesis says fish, fish it is.

My mind immediately jumped ahead just over a century to the Scopes Trial. Once again, science was bent over the knee of Genesis and poised for a paddlin’. And the challenges still have not stopped. Call it Intelligent Design, or Answers in Genesis—anything but mythology—and it will keep coming back for more. Already, in 1818, lawyers were arguing that science could be decided in the courtroom. Facts only muddy the issue. If Genesis weren’t enough, Jonah’s “great fish” was called a “whale” in the Gospels, so, QED. There is no debating Bible science. Just to prove the case, we’ll bring it to trial so that twelve people with no science training can decide the issue based on rhetoric. Disciples of dogma. No surprise that the jury found the whale to be a fish. There’s no stopping a true believer.

My wife gave me this book because of my enormous fondness for Moby Dick. In both books the discussion of killing and butchering whales bothers me immensely, but I know that Melville is running after a beast of a metaphor and that whale-boat skimming across the surface of the ocean has lanced a far greater prey than a white whale. The creationists, however, fail to see the beauty of mythic images. Anyone who’s even watched a court drama on television knows that the truth is not what courts seek. Courts seek to convince a jury, whether a person is guilty or not. No matter if it’s a while whale or a white bronco involved. Truth is much more subtle and fragile. Truth can be discerned by facts. But the Bible is a heavy book, and when dropped from a great enough height, can fracture even the laws of nature. Like Ahab, the creationists are never truly gone forever.