Chapter 32: Cetology

Oh boy, this chapter.

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This is a real monster. It’s very long, a bit dry, and mostly just… confusing, as to why it is even here. It is, oddly, one of the more famous ones, I feel. People love to talk about how every fact about whales in Moby Dick is wrong or how it goes wildly off topic and starts talking about pseudoscience. But I think that’s really not giving it enough credit.

SUMMARY: Ishmael describes the sorry state of existing whale scholarship, and goes on to describe every type of whale, from the gigantic sperm whale to the smallest porpoise. He breaks them into three categories based on sizes of books: folio, octavo, and duodecimo, from largest to smallest. After all that, he states that this too is inadequate, and only the barest foundation for what could follow.


The chapter starts off with Ishmael addressing the existing scholarship of whales. Rattling off a long list of authors, and noting how few of them have even seen a living whale. The problem is that the people who experience whaling are not writers. The rough and tumble crowd that generally crews whaling ships are not wont to sit down and write a book about it, except for a rare few like Scoresby or Beale. And they mostly write about the Greenland whale, which is the one that used to be the main target, before the creation of the modern sperm whale fishery.

Ishmael finds all of their scholarship inadequate. Nobody has sat down and really put together a good comprehensive work about whales. So, he decides to do it himself! He wants to get this information out there, so he’s just going to do his best to organize all the information that he has available, as an old whaleman, about the various types of whales that exist in the world.

But it is a ponderous task; no ordinary letter-sorter in the Post-Office is equal to it. To grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing. What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!

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This project extends beyond this chapter. The later ones are more interesting, since they deal more specifically with the sperm whale and its anatomy and behavior. This chapter deals a lot with vague information about things that are hard to even look up, since the terminology has changed so much over the years. The names that Ishmael gives to these whales are generally not the same as the ones we use today, when formal science really has caught up with him.

Anyway, let’s talk about the big controversy in this chapter: Whales as a fish.

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It’s not that Ishmael (or Melville) is some ignorant fool from the past who didn’t know any better than to call whales fish. He doesn’t just say “as you know, whales are a type of fish” and move on. This is a controversial statement at the time as well as today, but he’s sticking to it anyway. He outright cites Linnaeus separating whales from fish a hundred years earlier, but denies that claim outright.

The grounds upon which Linnæus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: “On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,” and finally, “ex lege naturæ jure meritoque.” I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.

He defers not to the scholar writing in Latin, but to his old pals from the Spouter-Inn. Everyone knows whales are fish! What, do you think they live on land? Anything that lives exclusively in water is a fish, that’s just the way words work, Linnaeus, you imbecile. The fact that they’re warm blooded and have eyelids and are mammals just means that they’re weird fish, not that they’re not fish at all.

It just depends on what sort of definition and taxonomy you’re working with, frankly. Are you dividing things based on what they are not, or what they used to be in the past? Modern scholars have agreed on taxonomic distinctions that place whales far away from other fish, but that is just one theory. Taxonomy is the slipperiest of all the sciences, based on flimsy evidence and opinions alone, most of the time.

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If Ishmael wants to call whales fish, I say that’s fair enough. It’s not actually a big deal. It’s just one category that may clang to your ears, but it is not made it ignorance, but rather out of stubbornness. They are traditionally known as fish to the community of those who hunt them, so they are fish to him. To what respect should we believe in the opinions of scholars who have never seen a live whale over those who know their innards most intimately?

Who has a right to have an opinion on the taxonomy of whales if not whalers? It’s a very different example, but it brings to mind the way that scientists and naturalists have disregarded conventional, local, non-white explanations in the past. Like how native americans learned to tap maple trees from watching squirrels do it. Historians wrote that off as an obvious folk tale with no truth to it, until just recently they caught footage of squirrels tapping maple trees with their teeth.

It is important to pay attention to the extent to which you trust people because they can use the trappings of knowledge, rather than having authentic experience. In the old days, writing something in Latin was the trick to making it is seem official and important and true. Nowadays it’s in English, and with a certain tone of seriousness. Bad information can show up in any form, it does not signal its presence with lack of class.

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Anyway, Ishmael gives a solid definition for a whale: A spouting fish with a horizontal tail. This ends up including all dolphins as well, which he calls porpoises exclusively, but that’s fine. Those are merely a smaller sort of whale, after all.

Ishmael has no patience for manatees, however:

*I am aware that down to the present time, the fish styled Lamatins and Dugongs (Pig-fish and Sow-fish of the Coffins of Nantucket) are included by many naturalists among the whales. But as these pig-fish are a noisy, contemptible set, mostly lurking in the mouths of rivers, and feeding on wet hay, and especially as they do not spout, I deny their credentials as whales; and have presented them with their passports to quit the Kingdom of Cetology.

Then, we get into the list of whales. It’s not so boring, but it does on a bit, and ends up being dull because it’s hard to picture what he’s talking about. Ishmael knows a lot about the sperm whale and the right whale, but not much about most of the other ones. They’re not the targets for whalers, so they are generally disregarded.

Market forces drive the scholarship here. We get descriptions of what the oil is like for some of the other whales. That is the measure of their worth, at least to the whalers.

BOOK II. (Octavo), CHAPTER IV. (Killer).—Of this whale little is precisely known to the Nantucketer, and nothing at all to the professed naturalist. From what I have seen of him at a distance, I should say that he was about the bigness of a grampus. He is very savage—a sort of Feegee fish. He sometimes takes the great Folio whales by the lip, and hangs there like a leech, till the mighty brute is worried to death. The Killer is never hunted. I never heard what sort of oil he has. Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included.

Interestingly, the largest whales of all, the blue whale, are left off the list, and only mentioned at the very end as a rumored type of whale, which may or may not exist. Even these gigantic creatures may remain mysterious and indistinct in the vastness of the ocean.

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At the end of this leviathanic chapter, Ishmael laments how unfinished it yet is. He knows that he doesn’t have all the real information. There is no need to make sport of his poor 19th century scholarship, he is well aware of it. He’s working with the best that’s available at the time, and the result is but a sketch, rather than a comprehensive plan.

It’s a theme that returns again and again: this book is an enormous undertaking, but it is not half as grand as he would make it. The world is too big, the subjects are too complex, there is no time and not enough paper in the world to capture their true essence. This chapter takes all the best scholarship that existed at the time, and still comes up woefully inadequate. Today, we have much more information available at our fingertips about whales, but is it any closer to being complete? As yet, we have only vague guesses about what and how the sperm whale even eats, much less how it lives its life.

This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!


Whew, managed to get through that one. It’s always a bit of a slog to read, I hope I’ve made it sound a little more interesting. There are some fun tidbits to be found among the weeds of the various whale descriptions, but it’s just too much.

I must skip around the larger mountains of this book as best I can, that I may continue through its deep and verdant valleys.

Until next time, shipmates!

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