Lulu Miller has written a new book called Why Fish Don’t Exist. It was featured recently in a podcast from Radiolab

Miller’s book is about David Starr Jordan, a man who grew up loving stars, flowers and fish and devoted his life to the “hidden and insignificant.”

Jordan eventually became the founding president of Stanford University. And he grew into a fanatic ichthyologist. His “Genera of Fishes,” massed 7,800 fishes names. He claimed 1,200 had been provided by him or his students.

But his life was eventually filled with chaos, difficulty and tragedy. His wife died, his two daughters died. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 turned to chaos 30 years of his work as an ichthyologist.

How did he go on? He was an incorrigible optimist. And he tirelessly pursued knowledge. Ordering the world gave him purpose.

But, Jordan’s is a cautionary tale. Jordan turned to eugenics and came to believe that we would do well to selectively breed the best humans and sterilize those who were inferior. Jordan’s obsession with the survival of Nordic whites was fueled by his deep-seated racism. Yikes! How horrible! He got stuck in a horrific false belief. But how similar to today. What an interesting commentary on our time as people continue in our country to espouse that one race is better than another.

But there are some other lessons Miller finds in Jordan’s life. He was complicated. We all are. He suffered chaos. We all do. He had losses. We all do. He was unreasonably optimistic. That is sometimes smart. He developed and clung to a horrible belief. Sound familiar? Haven’t we all?

Miller is not a person of religious faith, just the opposite, and some of her thinking will surely be deemed heretical to the categorically minded and the faithful, but she has something to teach, even those of us who have faith in God or in science or in a particular view of one of those or in a long-held view of types of humans.

The thought: Re-examine your categories.

Yes, there are categories we all use everyday that make sense out of the world. And some things are horrible and harmful, like David Starr Jordan’s eugenics or the Nazis’s racial views, but what if we ourselves worked on getting unstuck from ridged thinking and tried to think with nuance, especially about each other.

This really seems necessary these days, when in the U.S. we divide the world into rich or poor, educated or not, conservative or liberal, scientific or non-scientific, coastal or mid America, Republican or Democrat, protesters or not protesters, this religion or that, this racial group or that — especially when there is no clear scientific evidence for the concept of race.

Our categories often interfere with our relationships. We develop very narrow classifications. An “us” versus “them” thinking gets us stuck without mutually beneficial solutions. As I read more history and science I am seeing that life is so much messier than I ever thought.

Categories, sure they’ve done a lot of good in science and medicine, in discussions about law and morality, in understanding animals and groups of living things, really in so many areas of life. But they also can hinder us so much in finding new connections and new solutions.

Take fish says Miller. Yes, we can say “fish,” and that makes a categorical kind of sense, but did you know that “the lung fish is more closely related to a cow than a fish.”

Our familiar categories need new thinking.

Perhaps “we are all fish.” Perhaps we are all much more alike than we have previously thought.

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