Princeton Weekly Bulletin   April 28, 2008, Vol. 97, No. 25   prev   next   current

Beyond the surface

Early whale debate inspires Burnett to dive deeper into history of natural order

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ — Eight freshmen gathered in a classroom in Blair Hall recently with history professor D. Graham Burnett to debate a fiery controversy from the early 19th century: Is a whale a fish or a mammal?

Students in Burnett’s freshman seminar, “The Beast in the Sea: The Natural History of Whales,” conducted a mock appeal of Maurice v. Judd, the 19th-century trial in which the jury had to decide whether a whale is a fish or a mammal. Here, the team that argued that a whale is a fish conferred on strategy, while Burnett (standing, far right) consulted with the three graduate students playing the roles of appellate judges. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

The question was the subject of the 1818 court case Maurice v. Judd, which became the cause célèbre of the day. The trial was ostensibly about whether the whale oil of Samuel Judd, head of the New York Spermaceti Oil and Candle factory, should be considered fish oil and therefore subject to inspection by James Maurice, New York City’s inspector of fish oils. But the underlying question of whether a whale should be classified as a mammal or a fish became the subject of a sensational public debate where human taxonomy, the interpretation of the Bible’s book of Genesis, natural history and science itself were all at stake.

Burnett used the case as a focal point of his freshman seminar, “The Beast in the Sea: The Natural History of Whales.” To get the class immersed in the storied history of whales, Burnett asked his students to stage an appeal of the jury’s finding — which declared that a whale was a fish — as their midterm exam.

The trial also takes center stage in Burnett’s new book, “Trying Leviathan: The 19th-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature,” which looks at the debate over whale taxonomy as a turning point for the history of science in early America.

“The trial really seized people’s imaginations because the whole thing was so paradoxical,” said Burnett, an associate professor who specializes in the history of science. “There was broad consensus in the early republic that whales were fish — the notion this could be questioned, and by ‘philoso-phers’ of all people, struck nearly everyone as preposterous. There was much merriment at the expense of men of learning.”

The trial became a media sensation akin to the O.J. Simpson trial, with breathless coverage in newspapers, galleries crammed with citizen onlookers and celebrity figures engaged on both sides. William Sampson, the star plaintiff’s lawyer, and Samuel Latham Mitchill, a well-known naturalist, were “the Johnnie Cochran and Stephen Jay Gould of the day,” Burnett said.

Burnett stumbled on an account of the trial several years ago while researching the place of science in “Moby-Dick.” The case was such fertile ground for exploring changing perceptions of scientific knowledge that he ended up making the trial the focus of his study. He expanded the scope to examine the larger problems in the understanding of natural order that arose from the time of the pioneering 18th-century taxonomist Carl Linnaeus to Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology. Princeton University Press published the book last October.

Associate professor of history D. Graham Burnett is the author of a new book that examines the debate over whale taxonomy as a turning point for the history of science in early America. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

“Controversies afford unique windows into knowledge being made,” said Burnett, who has taught at Princeton since 2001. “The agonistic setting of the courtroom obliges people not just to say what they know, but to defend it under cross-examination — to explain where they got their information and what buttresses it. You see down into the activities of science and the features of people’s relationship to the natural world, which are generally so difficult for the historian to recover.”

The trial also served as a moment in history when book learning was challenged by knowledge gained from life experience. Fisherman, whalers and craftsmen who worked with whale products testified alongside trained zoologists and comparative anatomists. Burnett also studied whalers’ logbooks at the New Bedford Whaling Museum to examine what whalemen knew about the anatomy and physiology of whales.

“It’s an interesting example of lay expertise,” Burnett said. “In what ways do people come to know nature through labor? It’s not the same kind of knowledge as in the university discipline of zoology or in academies of natural history, but there is deep expertise in the craft knowledge of those whose livelihoods necessitate intimate contact with nature.”

In March “Trying Leviathan” was selected as one of two recipients of the 2007 New York City Book Award from the New York Society Library, which recognizes books that capture the essence of New York City.

“Graham Burnett’s book is a terrific achievement,” said Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. “He draws on an amazing range of sources, but wears his learning very lightly, writing an elegant and witty prose that anyone could read for pleasure. I love the way he tells the story of his central case, Maurice v. Judd, but I’m even more impressed by the way he uses the story to help us understand the meanings of law and science in a very different world. It’s wonderful to see scholarship of this depth and originality presented so well.”

Burnett graduated from Princeton in 1993 and went to the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar, completing his Ph.D. in 1997. He taught at Yale University and was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Columbia University and a fellow in the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library before joining the Princeton faculty.

His first book, “Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography and a British El Dorado,” examined the relationship between cartography and colonialism in the 19th century. He also wrote “A Trial By Jury,” a narrative account of his experience as the jury foreman on a Manhattan murder trial. He said that the experience of an actual courtroom stimulated his interest in the historical relationship between science and the law.

Mock trial tests students’ knowledge

To bring the subject of “Trying Leviathan” to life, Burnett split the students in his freshman seminar into two groups and assigned each team to act as lawyers in a mock appeal of the Maurice v. Judd trial. They prepared legal strategy memos for their “clients” and wrote briefs analyzing the problems at issue in the case. The assignment required that the students, in researching and framing their arguments, limit themselves to material that was available in 1818. The appeal was conducted before three graduate students in the Program in the History of Science, who played the roles of appellate judges.

“The rationale was to get them thinking like historians,” said Burnett. “I want them to get a feel for how you grasp the way people of the past made sense of the world. You have to submerge yourself in what they knew and blinker yourself with respect to the future — of which they had no inkling.”

That wasn’t easy, said student Erin Buchholtz.

“Trying Leviathan: The 19th-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature,” by D. Graham Burnett

“The word ‘scientist’ wasn’t even coined until the 1830s,” she said. “Additionally, it was hard to debate that whales were mammals — the word ‘mammal’ was considered obscene and offensive because it originated from the word ‘mammary.’”

Nevertheless, Buchholtz enjoyed posing as an attorney for the “whale is not a fish” team.

“The class has gotten us to look at history and science in a way we’d never thought of,” she said. “It’s opened up new thought processes and perspectives for a wide variety of ideas. It’s not uncommon for us to continue discussing things we talked about in class on the way back to our dorms, or at dinner the next day.”

“The trial was a lot of fun,” said Cameron Myhrvold. “Professor Burnett makes the subject exciting — he injects a lot of enthusiasm into our discussions.”

Sarah Strobel also has enjoyed the seminar. “We talked for two and a half hours — without stopping — about our favorite parts of ‘Moby-Dick,’ a novel that intimidated me before this class,” she said. 

The massive subject of whales is one that Burnett will continue to explore. He is currently completing another book on whales, which will finish the trajectory of “Trying Leviathan.”

“The book focuses on the 20th century and the vast exploitative whaling industry, which was critical to a number of countries,” Burnett said. He chronicles how the perception of whales was radically transformed in a century’s time. Seen as mere beasts in the 1800s, whales during the 20th century moved to “the center of a transformed relationship to the natural world and became critical to the emergence of the global environmental movement. They were totems of the peace movement and symbols of the counterculture.” Changing scientific ideas, Burnett said, turned the “soulless monsters of the 19th century into soulful friends of humanity.”

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