Express Yourself

Science Says Kill All the Fish

Our need to give things simple names leaves out a lot of nuance

Fish illustration by melissa toldy
Fish illustration by melissa toldy
is this a fish?

“When you actually examine the range of life on Earth, it takes a lot of acrobatics to sort it into a single hierarchy with humans at the top.” — Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist

I wonder how many of humanity’s mistakes stem from using the wrong words. Language is our superpower, but it’s also a weapon. These days, a prominent person can simply tweet a message and chaos can follow.

Words help us arrange our thoughts into a meaningful pattern. The trouble is, every word we know is a word created over time. Language evolves, and I suppose, language also devolves.

When a thought is really a wish, we take a word we know, and we rearrange the world in order to fit our language. We rarely use complex words because we want to be immediately understood. So we resort to using familiar words, even if they barely match up with reality.

This is why we have basic words for people we dislike: asshole, jerk, bitch. If we had to come up with elegant language to describe our distaste for others, we would have to pause and reflect on what’s really bothering us. And if we did that, we would have to feel the pain we’re trying so hard to deflect.

But some humans care about the integrity of language. They want to refine the lexicon we use. Scientists in particular are interested in naming the physical world with accuracy.

To know what to call something, you have to observe the thing. You have to study its shape, and you have to understand how it relates to other things. When you figure this out, you know how to form a group. And once you have a group, you can name it.

For example, a hundred years ago, ichthyologists studied fish. You know what a fish is, right? That scaly creature swimming in bodies of water. Yeah, you know fish. You ate one last week.

Taxonomists identified fish, and they named fish. Thousands of species of fish were categorized and placed along the branches of the evolutionary tree.

However, scientists can make mistakes. Ichthyologist David Starr Jordan, one of the founders of Stanford University, became so enamored with identification and classification, he embraced the eugenics movement for controlled reproduction based on heritage and race.

While eugenicists started with science — Darwin’s evolutionary work and “survival-of-the-fittest” concept — their application was rooted in human ignorance and a flawed perception of what creates an “optimal” society. Our imaginations can fool us into believing our words. Just because we envision a hierarchy doesn’t mean it actually exists.

It’s comforting to remember that humans make mistakes… it means we can keep evolving.

A few decades ago, scientists looked at fish again. They asked questions like, “Why are we pretending that all these creatures are the same just because they live underwater?”

These scientists, known as cladists, wanted to reorganize the tree of life by tracing descendants back to a common ancestor. And, wow, this became a real problem for fish.

Instead of judging fish by their similar appearances, the cladists grouped them according to their distinct qualities. Like, some fish have lungs—namely, the lungfish. With its epiglottis and its heart structure, the lungfish shares a stronger evolutionary tie with a cow than with salmon.

As the cladists worked their way through taxonomy, linking creatures by shared novelties, the term “fish” became meaningless.

Biologist Carol Kaeseuk Yoon called this “the ritual killing of the fish.” Lulu Miller was inspired by Yoon’s work, and she wrote about the cladists and David Starr Jordan. In Why Fish Don’t Exist, Miller weaves history and science with a personal narrative about love and the meaning of life. Her story illustrates the complexity we so often fail to convey with language:

The category “fish” hides all of this. Hides nuance. Discounts intelligence. It gerrymanders close cousins away from us, creating a false sense of separation to preserve our spot at the top of an imaginary ladder.

I think it’s comforting to remember that humans make mistakes. Because it means we can keep evolving. We can learn new words, and we can recognize the misleading ones.

Maybe we don’t need to get rid of the word “fish.” But maybe we can change its meaning. Perhaps, when we don’t know what to say, we can just throw up our hands and go, “Aw, fish.”

Melissa Toldy is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Sign up for her free newsletter, I Toldy You.

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