Chapter 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales

And now, for something completely different.

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A Richard III Whale

After that incredibly long and detailed short story, that microcosm for the book as a whole encapsulated in a single chapter, it’s time for a good ol’ fashioned non-narrative chapter where Ishmael yells at clouds. Or, rather, yells at artists for not knowing what whales look like.

SUMMARY: Ishmael describes and mocks the various attempts at depicting whales by artists throughout history. From the ancient carvings at Elephanta to the modern scientific illustration by Cuvier, none of them look anything like any sort of real whale. It’s an absolute disgrace. Ishmael ultimately chalks it up to the difficult of actually seeing a living whale, thus reducing the artists to rely on either malformed corpses or skeletons.


This really is just a whole chapter of Ishmael roasting artists for their inability to draw whales, it’s kind of great. I’ll pepper in a bunch of the specific illustrations he’s referring to, you don’t really get the whole picture without them.

Being a sort of philosophical type myself, the rumination on the difficulty of recreating reality in art reminds me of theodicy, and the always grasping, seeking, inadequate nature of the scientific method. Which is not to say that I am opposed to it, but I think there is a modern belief that there is some sort of “objective” truth that is actually being obtained, rather than just slightly more accurate guesses.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I should first explain what the heck a “theodicy” even is. So, basically it’s an answer to the Problem of Evil, which is the idea that if God exists and is both omnipotent and benevolent, why do bad things happen at all? If the person with the most power in the world is supposed to be good, then why is there suffering and injustice? Surely if they were truly that powerful and that good, they could just organize things in a way where only good things happen.

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Brahma with a whale tail

A theodicy attempts to solve this problem. There’s a long history of this, and they’re mostly bullshit, but I’m going to focus on one of the older ones, from the Book of Job. This is a book of the bible with a theodicy so bad that it turns a lot of people away from their faith entirely. In the book, God basically destroys the life of one of his most devout worshipers in order to test his faith. When Job complains to God, we get an explanation for all this unjust suffering.

It goes like this: Shut up, you don’t know the full context. Were you there when the universe was created? Do you know all the inner and outer workings of things? No, I’m the only one who does, so don’t you dare question my authority or my actions ever again.

This is, of course, a huge cop-out. In the ancient world, when the book was written, this is a perfectly fine answer. Some people have higher authority, they have more knowledge, just trust them. Don’t go asking questions about things above your pay grade, that’s liable to get you executed, or worse. It’s this same sort of argument around authority, but on a cosmic scale. The fact that God is God is why you shouldn’t question him, it doesn’t matter how good or bad your questions are.

I swear, I’ll connect this back to the chapter making fun of shitty whale pictures, I’m gettin’ there!

This sort of argument has always been a load of shit, and is only used to brush off uncomfortable questions that you either can’t or don’t want to deal with. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its legitimate uses, there are times when people shouldn’t have to answer every question in full detail. Some people, it’s just not their job to communicate the information being asked for. But specifically when deployed as an answer to a specific question, by an authority figure, it is just a complete dodge.

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A Whale and Narhwale from Goldsmith’s Animated Nature (1807)

So, what does this have to do with science? Well, this sort of blind faith in authority has crept into the modern discourse around scientific knowledge and advancement. Specifically, the idea that science is a method of uncovering and documenting some sort of True Reality, hiding behind all this garish color as Ishmael would have it.

There is a belief out there that science is, by its very nature, impartial. Free of all the messy bias and complexity that have plagued humans attempt to find true knowledge all throughout history. It’s a solved problem now, we just have to apply these methods and we’ll be on our way to perfect and complete understanding of the universe in no time.

This is not the case. Bias affects scientific research all the time, and the easiest place to see how imperfect it can be is old science. Back when the methods were still being developed, and simply writing down a lot of stuff and drawing precise pictures was still a large part of the work being done. Seeing something like, say, the incredibly shitty drawing of a whale by Cuvier reminds us that science is always just the best guess that we currently have. It is not pulling back the veil, it is always just another theory, grasping towards truth.

Ah, the project is forever unfinished! Any theory you could name could be thrown down tomorrow, and everyone would just be forced to start over from scratch. But of course, all these little human complications sneak in as well. Bias in gathering information, in interpreting data, in forming theories in the first place. It goes unseen as a part of the greater culture in which is sits.

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A Whale by Captain Colnett (1793)

For example: Just in 2017, one of the most famous and elaborate graves of a viking warrior was discovered to be that of a woman instead of a man. It was just assumed to be a man because of course a great, honored warrior would be a man, everyone knows that. The skeleton wasn’t even closely examined for decades and decades because everyone just knew the truth and moved on.

Culture is the air we breathe, it cannot be escaped. We can only work with the tools that we already have, even if we are using them to make new tools.

This all comes back to the shitty whale drawings because this is exactly what was going on then: the artists were working with what they had access to. There were no great whaling authors giving florid descriptions, nor did any of the great masters of engraving decide to take a trip on a whaling boat to get a real good look at one. They just took a shot based on the existing history of whaling pictures and that was good enough.

Later on, we get Cuvier working off a real skeleton. And he still gets it just colossally wrong, because whales are covered in blubber that is several feet thick. They’re weird animals! They still have fingers underneath all that fat:

It is also very curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb. This fin has four regular bone-fingers, the index, middle, ring, and little finger. But all these are permanently lodged in their fleshy covering, as the human fingers in an artificial covering. “However recklessly the whale may sometimes serve us,” said humorous Stubb one day, “he can never be truly said to handle us without mittens.”

This problem is actually still relevant today, with other creatures that know only from their skeletal remains. With dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, this is commonly referred to as “shrink wrapping”, where you just assume the skin was attached directly to the bone, giving them strange ghoulish appearance, with no similarity to any living creatures today.

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Cuvier’s Whale (1836)

Science is a process without end, we are ever expanding our understanding of everything that exists. If someone gives you an easy answer, they’re probably selling something.


Ah, that was a fun one. Got to flex a bit of my old philosophical knowledge, and include a bunch of truly ridiculous pictures of whales.

We’re in a little bit of theme block here, the next several chapters will deal with describing how whales are perceived and what their physical form is actually like, from someone with real experience (read: Ishmael (read: Melville)).

Until next time, shipmates!

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