- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (January 24, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691146152
- ISBN-13: 978-0691146157
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,271,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature
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Winner of the 2007 Isabelle Hermalyn Book Award, New York Urban History
Winner of the 2007 New York City Book Award
"Trying Leviathan isn't just another fish story....[H]is story is riveting, one of those wonderful obscure microcosmic matters."--Sam Roberts, New York Times
"It's science itself that was put on trial in 1818 in a dispute over a $75 inspection fee, as related in this fascinating account...Burnett's look at the trial and its fallout adds a historical dimension to debates caused by science's role in the legal sphere, especially when it introduces new concepts."--Publishers Weekly
"In 1818, in a New York City courtroom, the case of Maurice v. Judd posed an apparently straightforward question: Was whale oil fish oil, and therefore subject to state inspection and taxation? As expert witnesses testified, however, the trial quickly became a passionate public debate on the order of nature and the supremacy of man. In the fascinating Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, D. Graham Burnett describes the trial, its undercurrents, and its repercussions with sublime wit and consummate skill."--Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe
"At once bewitching and bookish, with a Dickensian cast of characters (including a sea captain named Preserved Fish), Trying Leviathan bristles with insights about the relationships between popular belief, democracy, science and the law that resonate with contemporary controversies over Darwinism and intelligent design."--Glenn C. Altschuler, New York Observer
"When the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for his heretic views, man's position in the Universe was at stake. When schoolteacher John Scopes entered a Tennessee courtroom in 1925 for violating the state's anti-evolution statute, the issue was man's relationship to the animal kingdom. It's hard to imagine that a case brought by a Manhattan fish-oil inspector against a purveyor of whale oil could end up in similar territory. As D. Graham Burnett's enthralling book demonstrates, it did just that...Burnett curates the abundant quotations with skill and strengthens his thesis with some marvellous contemporary illustrations. His clear writing and delightful detours help build a sense of suspense at the outcome of the trial. All of which makes this serious book an unexpected page-turner."--Henry Nicholls, Nature
"...[Burnett's] perspective on the intellectual and social climate of early-nineteenth-century America makes fascinating reading. The issues raised in Maurice v. Judd have surfaced again and again, right up to present-day battles over the teaching of intelligent design in public schools."--Natural History
"In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett links the case of Maurice v. Judd to a number of important cultural and social issues, but he consciously avoids depicting the story as a battle between learned men of science and the ignorant masses. Instead, he uses the trial as an epistemological exercise: how could Americans know at the time that whales were not fish? Who had the authority to make such a classification? How does scientific knowledge become conventional wisdom? Burnett's examination of these questions makes for one of the most intellectually rigorous fish stories ever told."--American Scientist
"As D. Graham Burnett notes in his curious new history, Trying Leviathan, ...[t]he vast majority of American not only assumed that a whale was a fish, but were surprised to learn that the question could be debated. ...Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer."--Alexander Nazaryan, The Village Voice
"In taking Maurice v. Judd and fleshing out the details of the economics, natural history and politics of the day, Burnett offers a fascinating look into the early culture of science. We in the enlightened 21st century may laugh at the scientific ignorance of our forebears. But consider the debate about science in our times when many doubt the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, climate change and the age of the Earth."--David B. Williams, Seattle Times
From the Inside Flap
"Graham Burnetts pathbreaking book teems with lively accounts of a notorious legal conflict between different kinds of people and different kinds of knowledge played out in New York in the early years of the nineteenth century. Disputes like these vividly illuminate the preoccupations of past societies and make us more conscious of our own. An important and thoroughly engaging book."--Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
"'Is a whale a fish?' Melville famously wrestled with the question in Moby-Dick, but as Graham Burnett reveals in Trying Leviathan, the question had already been argued in--of all places--a Manhattan courtroom in 1818. In addition to providing a fascinating and provocative look at the relationship between science and culture in early nineteenth-century New York, Burnett writes eloquently about how the whalemen regarded their mysterious and awe-inspiring prey. This is a fun, surprising, and, in the best sense, challenging book."--Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea
"Trying Leviathan recounts a remarkable collision of science and law in a New York City courtroom in 1818. Burnett brilliantly parses the case both inside and outside the court, exploring the conflicts it aroused between learned taxonomists and sea-leathered whalers, practical businessmen and everyday citizens. A compelling, provocative work."--Daniel Kevles, Yale University
"In this irresistible narrative, full of fascinating characters, Graham Burnett has given us a brilliant, imaginative, often amusing, wonderfully realized study that brings together questions of epistemology, the relation of observation to theory, the eras worship of nature and simultaneous commercial exploitation of it, claims of class to intellectual authority, and the relation of expertise to democracy."--Thomas Bender, New York University
"I can't remember reading a more intelligent and well-written book than Graham Burnett's Trying Leviathan. He is a brilliant writer, and he has transformed a nineteenth-century legal battle over the taxonomic classification of whales into a wonderful and engaging book."--Richard Ellis, author of Men and Whales
"Burnett shows the conflicted heart of nineteenth-century American science by looking at the complicated, amusing, and well-publicized trial of Maurice v. Judd, in which the question at stake was whether a whale is a fish. This makes a fascinating story, Burnett writes uncommonly well, and the final chapter is one of the most interesting pieces on popular science that I have ever read. Trying Leviathan is a powerful and brilliant addition to the history of American science and culture."--James Gilbert, University of Maryland--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Wouldn't have purchased this if I was just browsing, but it discusses quite the interesting topic - in the early part of the 19th century, there was significant controversy around classification; this is embodied by the question of whether a whale is a fish. This book tracks and analyzes a legal case on this topic, and is very well-written, as I said, for a history text. The conclusion's a bit wishy-washy, but other than that, it's quite worth purchasing, rather than checking out from a library, for the relevant class.
"Trying Leviathan" is a richly detailed account of a nineteenth century New York City court case which was brought to decide whether a whale was a fish or a mammal. (Melville, by the way, came down on the side of "fish.") The case was brought because a whale oil merchant refused to pay a tax levied on fish oil because a whale is not a fish. It is a mammal. Despite testimony by the leading scientific authorities of the day the whale is ruled a fish -- in what was seen as a victory of common sense (and the common man) over learned authorities. Sound familiar? It should.
In 2013 science is still ridiculed by a claque of the willfully ignorant -- even as atmospheric carbon levels approach the tipping point. Burnett's book is not about just a single legal case. It is about public discourse, our understanding of the world, and the importance of an informed population to a healthy democracy. And -- it's a compelling read.
In _Trying Leviathan_, Burnett, a historian of science at Princeton University and author of _Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado_ (UCP, 2000), explores a little known New York trial from 1818, _Maurice v. Judd_, in which a fish oil inspector (James Maurice) brought a candle maker and oil merchant (Samuel Judd) to court over his refusal to pay fees on whale oil (a law stated that fish oil had to be inspected for quality and purity). Maurice was represented by lawyers William Sampson and John Anthon, who desired to keep the trial about commercial regulation and away from, in Burnett's words, the "muddy matters of taxonomy" (p. 17). Judd, whose defense included the testimony of the well-respected New York naturalist Samuel Mitchell, was represented by Robert Bogardus and William M. Price, who thought differently - they saw this as a taxonomic issue, and were willing to get dirty in the muddy matters (this case is also mentioned in the endnotes of Eric Jay Dolin's _Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America_ (W.W. Norton, 2007), pp. 384-385). What results is a splendid examination of questions about taxonomic systems, epistemology of natural historical knowledge, semantics, literary references, authority of various classes of New York citizens, and the relationship between science and society. Although the trial centers on the question of whether whale oil is fish oil, and hence if whales are fish, Burnett strives to look deeper into the reasons why the trial came to court at all, and what it meant beyond the straight science of taxonomy; he writes in his introduction: "It is perhaps cliché to assert that all taxonomy is politics, or to insist that epistemological problems are always problems of social order; _Maurice v. Judd_ provides a striking occasion to test the viability (as well as the limits) of such sweeping claims" (p. 10).
Burnett organizes his book around three reasons why this case is important to study: the status of "philosophy" and natural history in learned institutions and intellectual culture of New York in the first quarter of the nineteenth century; the importance of whales and other cetaceans that were considered "problems of knowledge" to this period of history in the United States; and the shaky status of zoological classification, surely not one of a "golden age of the classifying imagination" (I do think I should fully read Harriet Ritvo's _The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination_ (Harvard UP, 1997) - I read the first chapter for an animal histories course in 2005). These considerations, and the trial's main question in general (is a whale a fish?), are investigated by chapters devoted to what different categories of people in New York did or did not know about whales: naturalists, sailors and whalemen, artisans, merchants, and dealers in whale products, and regular folk of New York. While Mitchell thought it important to understand the authority of the first three, Sampson added the last category, considering the opinion of everyday citizens as worthy of attention.
The everyday citizens are tackled first, with Burnett concluding that a majority of people - whose limited contact with whales (textually or physically) included the authority of the Bible and its tripartite taxonomy (fish/water, beasts/earth, and birds/sky), popular natural history texts, the occasional strandings or moorings of whales, and the whale jaw bone of Scudder's American Museum - thought of whales as fish, and it was hard to stomach that whales could be in the same category (mammals) as humans. Whales seemed to sit outside of natural history, more as curiosities than as creatures which could be easily classified. Peculiar examples of animals pointed to exceptions to the rule of classification, which damaged the authority of the new philosophy of taxonomy, brought forth mainly by the comparative anatomy of Cuvier (as being different from the Linnean-style categorization of plants or animals based on external characteristics).
Yet the naturalists, "those who philosophize," would make the case that whales are indeed mammals, the subject of Burnett's third chapter. Anthon, who represented the oil inspector, stated to the jurors: "Many of us may not have seen a whale," but this should not cause us to be "led astray by the learning of philosophers" (p. 41). At issue was the authority of the naturalist and ichthyologist Samuel Mitchell, author of "The Fishes of New-York" and star witness of the defense, and in the long run, the authority of the enterprise of science itself. If common sense tells regular citizens of New York that whales are fish (for the Bible says so, and they swim in water like fish), then on what grounds should a naturalist's erudition and, maybe, mere opinion, tell them otherwise? Since taxonomy was brought to the forefront in the case, the prosecutors sought to show that the current state of taxonomy is in question, and that there is disagreement between the learned.
Not only did Mitchell represent the "new philosophy" of classification based on comparative anatomy, but he had big ideas about a program for a patriotic, American natural history, to make New York a scientific center by popularizing the city's natural history collections and promoting natural history to its citizens through lectures. And it was to this up and coming natural history and scientific culture that Maurice v. Judd may have owed its time in court: "through the trial flowed the strong currents of opposition to the institutions, innovations, and schemes of state-sponsored `philosophy.' Science in the service of the state looked to many New Yorkers suspiciously like the state in the service of the men of science" (p. 207), while there existed an "emerging cultural and intellectual ambitions of a rising community of artisans and merchants, who were seeking support for their own institutions for the advancement of learning" (p. 203). _Maurice v. Judd_ was more about social order in New York than it was about figuring out what a particular type of creature was (such that Burnett could have titled his book _Trying Natural History_, or _Trying Mitchell_, but _Trying Leviathan_ sounds better).
In Jules Verne's _Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea_ (1869), the naturalist Pierre Aronnax, with his apprentice Counsel, and the harpoonist Ned Land at times disagreed over not only their fate aboard Nemo's Nautilus, but also matters of life in the sea; and while Aronnax showed erudition as to the species of plants and birds (expert knowledge), Ned Land knew how to capture and prepare them for eating (practical knowledge). Naturalists and whalemen had different ways of looking at whales, and in the fourth chapter of _Trying Leviathan_, Burnett investigates what whalemen knew about their prey. Two whalemen were witnesses in the trial - one believed whales were not fish, noting similarities with humans, and the other did, until the trial caused him to possibly think otherwise. Whalers combined physical experience with whales with texts that discussed natural history of marine mammals, which may or may not have contrasted with the views of "cabinet naturalists." Burnett uses the logs and journals of whalemen to understand how they understood cetaceans. One way whalers thought of whales was in terms of oil; they were not solely animals, but instead storehouses of a money-making product. But they also thought of whales in terms of zoology. Important to Burnett's look into the whaleman's natural history is their cutting-in patterns, diagrams which depicted the methods by which a whale would be cut up, a "high-seas butchery," in which different whales necessitated different cutting-in operations due to different anatomies - anatomies different from those of naturalists, an "autonomous domain of natural knowledge" (p. 118). I like Burnett's observation that a harpoon or shaft is just as much a pointer to anatomical detail as it is a whaler's fatal tool. But he is quick to note that such anatomical detail represented for whalemen only a "superficial anatomy," because whalemen learned the anatomy useful to their purpose (whale oil was found in areas near the outer layer, or "blanket," of the animal), while naturalists learned as much as they could to have as complete a picture of nature as possible. With whales referred to as fish in logbooks, whalers not considering some whales to be "whales" (semantics), and whales as whales in the water yet fish if out of water, I take it that whalers generally considered their catch as fish.
In the fifth chapter, Burnett discusses the last group worth studying, those involved in the whale product industries (mainly oil), the "men of affairs." Although the shortest of the chapters to look at what a group of people knew about whales, it is here that Burnett teases out the motives of _Maurice v. Judd_. He asks what was really at stake, since the fine put on Judd was only $75. Like the Scopes Trial in 1925, _Maurice v. Judd_ best represents a formal test case for the New York law passed in March of 1818 that authorized "the appointment of guagers [sic] and inspectors of fish oils" (p. 147), to test the scope and interpretations of "fish oil." Dealers in oil generally understood fish oil and whale oil to be distinct, while Gideon Lee, a leather industry man who drafted the statute, desired to have all oils under the term "fish oils" inspected for purity to clean up a messy oil industry, full of "deceptions and fraud" (p. 162). Plus, fish oils were important for leather manufacture, and for Lee, "money made its own taxonomic distinctions" (p. 161). In the end, _Maurice v. Judd_ really concerned venders of oils (those who were inspected) and purchasers of oils (the leather tanning industry) protecting their commercial interests. Animals were classified differently in this context, in what Burnett calls "taxonomies of craft and trade" (p. 164).
In the pages of the penultimate chapter of _Trying Leviathan_, Burnett reveals the outcome of the trial, and for that reason, I am not going to discuss it. This book was an exciting read, and Burnett brought to life for the reader many characters and their arguments in early nineteenth century New York. I think the reader deserves to find out the outcome for themselves. He pulled from a multitude of sources - logbooks, natural history texts, lecture notes, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, letters, and illustrations - representing a variety of people concerned with the trial. It's science history, social history, intellectual history, religious history, economic history, and law history (are there any others?) all brought together to illuminate one small and largely forgotten event in American history. There is much more in this book than I could possibly share, and I am still trying to decide if _Maurice v. Judd_ owes its occurrence to a science vs. artisans issue or a venders vs. purchasers problem in New York.