On his Discover magazine blog, Carl Zimmer defends the infamously tedious thirty-second chapter of Moby-Dick . That’s the chapter entitled “Cetology” in which Ishmael endeavors to define and classify the various types of whales.

Or as he more grandiloquently describes his project: “It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you. Yet is it no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed.”

Then follow lengthy descriptions of the sperm whale, the right-whale, the fin-back whale, the hump-backed whale, the razor-back whale, the sulphur-bottom whale, and more. Not without reason is the section routinely excluded from abridged and movie adaptations of the novel.

Yet as Zimmer argues, “Cetology” represents “science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing.” He explains :

I look back now at the way I was taught the book [in college], and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.

“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.


I can’t say I’ll be re-reading that chapter anytime soon, but Zimmer almost made me want to.

Articles by Anna Sutherland

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