David Starr Jordan was a professor of taxonomy. A man whose mission was to classify living things into systemic categories, he was obsessed with bringing order to the natural world. At one point, he was credited with the discovery and naming of nearly one-fifth of all the fish known to science. But the more he worked out the hidden blueprints of life on earth, the more the universe seemed intent on hindering his work. His collections were destroyed by lightning, by fire, and finally by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, during which more than a thousand specimens, stored in fragile jars, crashed to the ground. His entire life’s work was destroyed in an instant.
At this point, many would have given up and despaired. But not Jordan. He looked at the debris at his feet, found the first fish he had ever named, and confidently began to rebuild his collection.
When NPR reporter Lulu Miller first heard this anecdote, she took Jordan for a fool. She saw his story as a cautionary tale of hubris and denial. As she slowly straightened out her own life, however, she began to wonder. Perhaps he was instead a prime example of how to carry on when all seems lost. She began to research into his life, not realizing that what she would learn would profoundly change her understanding of history, morality, and the world beneath her feet.
Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life is a wondrous fable about persevering in a world where chaos will always reign supreme.