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The Grand Temptation

Finding Faith in the Taxonomy of Fish

Balistes maculatus, The long File-Fish. (Courtesy Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.)

PUBLISHED: March 2, 2020

Maybe Cape Cod is fertile ground for existential transformation. Something about the metals in its sandy soil catalyzing metaphysical shifts—I don’t know. All I know is I had my entire worldview rearranged when I was visiting its shores. It happened when I was about seven years old, and oddly enough, it was that moment that would pave the way for my obsession with the naturalist David Starr Jordan, that would cause me to spend nearly ten years researching his life in hopes that it held some clue that could help me when my life later unraveled.

It was early morning, early summer. I was on vacation with my family in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, just fifty miles, as the crow flies, from Penikese Island, where Jordan’s scientific career began in earnest—a lonely little speck on the horizon that was once called an “outpost of hell.” I was on the mainland, though, standing with my father on the deck, gazing at a yellow-and-green marsh that rushed toward the horizon. We were trading off a pair of clunky black binoculars, trying to get a better look at a white dot we had noticed in the distance. My dad was a tall, mustachioed man, with a mane of jet-black hair in those days, cut-off jean shorts, no shirt, and a fuzzy, friendly belly, nearly always offering a pastel fleck of lint. The rest of the house—my mom, my two older sisters, our cats—was still asleep. Unable to get the lenses to focus properly, I had just handed the binoculars back to my dad. I kept staring at the white dot nestled in the reeds—wondering if it was a swan, a buoy, something more exciting—when for some reason I cannot recall, I asked my dad, “What’s the meaning of life?”

Maybe it had been the expansiveness of the marsh, which ended at the ocean, which ended … I didn’t understand where—I pictured an edge, with sailboats tipping off—that made me suddenly wonder what we were all doing here.

My dad paused, raising one black eyebrow behind the binoculars. Then he turned to me grinning and announced, “Nothing!”

It felt like he had been waiting eagerly, my whole life, for me to finally ask. He informed me that there is no meaning of life. There is no point. There is no God. No one watching you or caring in any way. There is no afterlife. No destiny. No plan. And don’t believe anyone who tells you there is. These are all things people dream up to comfort themselves against the scary feeling that none of this matters and you don’t matter. But the truth is, none of this matters and you don’t matter.

Then he patted me on the head.

I have no idea what my face would have looked like then. Ashen? It was as if a big feather comforter had just been ripped off the world.

Chaos, he informed me, was our only ruler. This massive swirl of dumb forces was what made us, accidentally, and would destroy us, imminently. It cared nothing for us, not our dreams, our intentions, our most virtuous of actions. “Never forget,” he said, pointing to the pine-needly soil beneath the deck, “as special as you might feel, you are no different than an ant. A bit bigger, maybe, but no more significant”—he paused, consulting the map of hierarchies that existed in his head—“except, do I see you aerating the soil? Do I see you feeding on timber to accelerate the process of decomposition?”

I shrugged.

“I do not. So you are arguably less significant to the planet than an ant.”

<i>Mullus Surmuletus, The Striped Surmulet</i>. (Courtesy Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.)

Then, to really drive his point home, he threw his arms wide—I thought maybe this was an invitation for a hug, for him to say, Just kidding, you matter!—but instead he said, “Okay. Now picture that this … is all of time.” He palpated a vast, invisible timeline in front of his chest. “Humans have only been around this long!” On the word “this” he theatrically pinched his fingers together. “And we will probably be gone soon! And if you zoom out away from the Earth, well. …” He clucked. “Then we’re really nothing. There are planets and beyond them more solar systems …”

I’m not sure if he used the exact words, but nearly two decades later when I heard astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson say his famous line “We are a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck,” I heard my father’s call.

I don’t think I had the language as a seven-year-old to put into words the cold feeling that was starting to swirl up in my lungs. “So then what’s the point of any of this? Why go to school? Why glue macaroni to paper?” But I spent my childhood quietly inspecting my father’s behaviors to find out. He’s a lively man. A biochemist with shaky hands who studies ions, the particles that carry the electricity that powers all life—heartbeat, lightning, even thought itself. He doesn’t use seat belts or return addresses; he swims where it is prohibited, and one day came home declaring he was done with sleeves—after his sleeves had toppled his test tubes one too many times. In a huff, he had stormed toward his closet with a pair of scissors and then spent the next few years going to work dressed in a way that can best be described as Academic Pirate.

He worships the family dog (who is naughty), refuses to follow recipes, enjoys sampling the taste of his discarded test subjects—frog legs, electric ray organs, though my mom drew the line at mice livers, refusing to let him enter her kitchen with his little brown bag of culinary curiosity. Once, as he and I were walking into the retirement home where his mother lived, an old woman in a wheelchair accidentally cut us off. “Slow down!” my father shouted, and dropped to the floor, writhing and grimacing, as if to insinuate she’d hit him. I was cringing, embarrassed, worried that he would scare this poor woman to literal death. But the light that snapped on in her eye, the smile that unfurled across her face, made me realize she could handle the joke, was hungry for the joke, for being seen as a person who can handle a joke.

You don’t matter seems to fuel his every step, his every bite. So live as you please. He spent years riding a motorbike, drinks copious amounts of beer, and enters the water, whenever possible, with the belliest of flops. He seems to permit himself just one lie to constrain his otherwise voracious hedonism, to form a kind of moral code. While other people don’t matter, either, treat them like they do.

He has made my mom coffee almost every morning for half a century. He is devoted to his students—they came to our holiday meals; they sometimes lived in our home. Our kitchen table is etched with thousands of tiny numbers, carved in his shaky hand, a physical record of the countless nights he spent trying to get my sisters and me to comprehend the beauty of math.

What could be a grim reality has instead pumped his life full of vigor, has made him live big and good. I have strived my whole life to follow in his nihilistic, clown-shoed footsteps. To stare our pointlessness in the face, and waddle along toward happiness because of it.

But I haven’t always been so good at it.

You don’t matter ended up having a wildly different effect on me.

Penikese Island’s lonely shores have always been a spot where people have tried to cultivate hope. In the early 1900s, it was a leper colony led by a doctor who wanted to find a way to cure his wards. In the 1950s it was converted into a bird sanctuary where naturalists tried to reverse the fates of a plummeting tern population. In the 1970s, the island became a reform school for delinquent or wayward or troubled boys (the name depended on the decade), where a Marine and fisherman hoped a regimen of seclusion, manual labor, animal husbandry, boatbuilding, communal living, and schoolwork could “turn a lot of potential murderers into car thieves.” By the time I learned of the island, it had become a heroin recovery center, where people addicted to the drug could try to get clean once and for all. But before all that, back in David Starr Jordan’s day, the group seeking salvation on the lonely little rock? Naturalists.

By 1873, one of the most famous naturalists of the day, Louis Agassiz, had grown gravely concerned about the future of the trade. Agassiz was a Swiss geologist, a charismatic bear of a man with bushy mutton chops, who had earned his fame by being one of the earliest proponents of the ice age theory. Agassiz had only come to this vision of an Earth coated in ice after making meticulous observations of fossils and scratch marks in the bedrock. As a result, he believed that the best way to teach science was to scrutinize nature. “Study nature, not books” was his motto, and he was known for locking his students in a closet with dead animals and not allowing them to emerge until they had discovered “all the truths which the objects contained.”

Agassiz dreamed of creating a safe haven where he could right the wrong of trusting in books, a kind of summer camp for young naturalists where he could teach the art of direct observation out in nature. And when a wealthy landowner offered to donate Penikese Island to the cause, he jumped at the opportunity.

Its location was ideal: an hour from the mainland, easy enough to access, yet far enough to feel free. So was its size: big enough to roam, but small enough to never get lost. And as for the subjects available for study on Penikese? Well, where to begin. Coating its treeless shores was a lush carpet of seagrass, which whipped in the wind and rustled with treasures—crabs, dragonflies, snakes, mice, crickets, plovers, beetles, owls. There were also tide pools, silty with snails and seaweed and barnacles. And perhaps Agassiz’s favorite: the big blond boulders scattered like clunky teeth all over the island, some of them over fifteen feet tall, which revealed in their scratch marks the direction the mighty glacier had been traveling some twenty thousand years before. Finally, there was the lovely lapping sea itself. A sapphire platter that offered endless riches—sea stars, jellies, oysters, urchins, rays, horseshoe crabs, sea squirts, bioluminescence, and fish after glorious, slimy, shimmering fish. The naturalists’ nets would never come up empty. For a person hoping to teach using nature itself, the place was a gold mine.

Just a few months later, on July 8, 1873, David Starr Jordan stepped onto a tug boat in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and beheld the ocean for the very first time. He was twenty-two years old. Of his approach to the island, he writes:

None of us will ever forget his first sight of Agassiz. We had come down from New Bedford in a little tug-boat in the early morning, and Agassiz met us at the landing-place on the island. He was standing almost alone on the little wharf, and his great face beamed with pleasure… .

His tall, robust figure, broad shoulders bending a little under the weight of years, his large round face lit up by kindly dark-brown eyes, his cheery smile… . He greeted us with great warmth as we landed. He looked into our faces to justify himself in making choice of us among the many whom he might have chosen.

After greeting each student with a handshake, “the great naturalist” led them up the hill to see their dormitory. It wasn’t in the best of shape, construction having run longer than Agassiz had anticipated. The windowpanes hadn’t been installed yet, nor had the shingles, and the wall that was to separate the men’s from the women’s sleeping quarters was, at present, just a flimsy sailcloth hanging from a rafter.

Some of the students were horrified. Frank H. Lattin, a young birdwatcher from Rochester, thought the island’s “desolate” location, ramshackle buildings, and inescapable sun made it feel like a kind of hell. “Viewed simply in itself,” he writes, “it was a most unattractive spot, and at first I could scarcely persuade myself that I could enjoy my stay here.”

<i>Kyrtus indicus</i>. (Courtesy Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.)

But eyes, tricky organs, show different people different things. That same hot earth beckoned to Jordan, its golden sand glittering with mysterious seashells, sponges, seaweed. As the students were beginning to socialize, to flirt, to choose their beds in those long rows of cots, Jordan slipped down to the shore, his fingers grazing saltwater for the very first time. He picked up a smooth black stone, then a greenish one, his mind flooding with the panic of his life—“ ‘Is this hornblende?’ ‘Is this epidote?’ ‘How do you tell them apart?’ ”

In time, he was called to join the group up at the barn for a midmorning meal. The cows had been dragged out only a few days before—four-legged tables dragged in—so the building would have had the smell of hay, of urine, of grass, of life. Spiderwebs and swallow nests still presided from the rafters. This was to be their main classroom for the summer. The students took their places at long tables and chatted away as they dug into their food. 

As the meal concluded, Agassiz rose from his chair to deliver his welcome speech. It was a benediction too beautiful, according to Jordan, to ever recreate. “What Agassiz said that morning can never be said again.”

Luckily for us, the famous poet John Greenleaf Whittier was also in attendance that summer, and he did not agree with Jordan’s assessment. Whittier would later publish a poem called “The Prayer of Agassiz” recounting that very speech. He starts with a bit of scene setting—“On the isle of Penikese / Ringed about by sapphire seas”—and then gets to it, to Agassiz’s benediction, the reason collecting mattered.

Said the Master to the youth:

“We have come in search of truth,

Trying with uncertain key

Door by door of mystery;

We are reaching, through His laws,

To the garment-hem of Cause,

Him, the endless, unbegun,

The Unnamable, the One,

Light of all our light the Source,

Life of life, and Force of force.

As with fingers of the blind

We are groping here to find

What the hieroglyphics mean

Of the Unseen in the seen. …”

I’ve never been great at poetry, but if I’m decoding those capitalizations right then what the taxonomists were searching for as they ogled their precious weeds and rocks and snails was …

The Unnamable, the One, the Source, the Force, the Truth, the Unseen…


Indeed, in his writings Agassiz is clear: He believes that every single species is a “thought of God,” and that the work of taxonomy is to literally “translat[e] into human language … the thoughts of the Creator.”

Specifically, Agassiz believed that hiding in nature was a divine hierarchy of God’s creations that, if gleaned, would provide moral instruction. This idea of a moral code hidden in nature—a hierarchy, a ladder or “gradation” of perfection—has been with us for a long time. Aristotle proposed a holy ladder—later Latinized to Scala Naturae—in which all living organisms could be arranged in a continuum of lowly to divine, with humans at the top, followed by animals, insects, plants, rocks, and so on. And Agassiz believed that by arranging these organisms into their proper order, one could come to discern not just the intent of a holy maker but perhaps even the instructions for how to become better.

Some hierarchies seemed obvious to Agassiz. Take posture, for example. Humans revealed their superiority by how they stood, “looking heavenward,” while fish “[lay] prostrate within the water.” But other hierarchies were more subtle. Look at the parrot, the ostrich, and the songbird. Who among them is the highest on the ladder? If you could crack that, Agassiz figured, then you could learn which mattered more to God: speech, size, or song. But how do you crack the code? Well, that’s where things got fun. That’s where the microscopes and magnifying glasses came in. Using what Agassiz believed were objective measures about organisms, such as “the complication or simplicity of their structure” or “the character of their relations to the surrounding world,” you could rank organisms in their proper order. Lizards, for example, would score higher than fish because they “bestow greater care upon their offspring.” Parasites, meanwhile, were clear lowlifes, the lot of them. Just look at how they earned their living: They mooched and deceived and freeloaded.

But the most valuable lessons, Agassiz believed, lay hidden under the skin. At some point during his lecture on Penikese Island, Agassiz would have warned his students about the danger of outerwear—whatever scales or feathers or quills a creature wore. This outerwear could be a dangerous distraction, a red herring that could fool a taxonomist into seeing similarities between creatures where there were none (hedgehogs and porcupines, for example: On the outside, they’re so similar; on the inside, they’re a world apart). Agassiz explained that the best way to get to God was with a scalpel. To split the skin and look inside. That was where you would discover the “true relations” of the animals. In their bones, their gristle, their guts. That was where the divine thoughts lay most exposed.

Take fish, for example. All the fish swimming just outside the barn at that very moment. Pluck one from the ocean, skin it, and you would discover a very clear message from God. “We cannot understand the possible degradation and moral wretchedness of Man, without knowing that his physical nature is rooted in … the Fish,” Agassiz writes. To him, the shockingly similar skeletal plan of fish (their skulls, their vertebrae, their rib-like protrusions) represented a warning to “Man.” They were scaly reminders of how far a person could slip if he didn’t resist his base urges: “The moral and intellectual gifts that distinguish him from [the fish] are his to use or to abuse… . He may sink as low as the lowest of his type, or he may rise to a spiritual height.” As Agassiz aged, he eased up just slightly on the idea of the fixity of species in order to leave room for a concept he called “degeneration.” He worried that even the highest of creatures could fall from their rungs if they weren’t careful, that bad habits could somehow cause a species to physically and cognitively decline.

In this way, Agassiz presented nature as a sacred text. Even the dullest slug or dandelion could offer spiritual and moral guidance to those humans curious enough to look. Take all of those messages in aggregate and you get the intricate, awe-inspiring shape of what he called the divine plan. God’s fable-rich explanation of the meaning of it all, not just how all organisms are ranked, but the very road map—written in a convoluted set of morals—to ascension.

“The swallows flew in and out of the building in the soft [summer] air, for they did not know that it was no longer a barn but a temple,” writes Jordan, finally able to use his words again.

Cut to me. Over a hundred years later. Surrounded by those very same waves, now stripped of their meaning. My father seemed inflated by that pointlessness, buoyed and liberated into living exactly how he pleased. But for me the effect was the precise opposite. A dark thought slowly began to hiss its way into my mind. Don’t get too squeamish. Camus estimates it’s on the mind of a majority of us at any moment. That remedy for pain so enticing that eighteenth-century poet William Cowper smartly termed it the “grand temptation.”

For me, it started beckoning when I was in the fifth grade. Around the time my oldest sister got bullied so badly she had to drop out of high school. My sweet sister, with my father’s black hair, who wore maroon-rimmed glasses over her dark eyes and shiny braces on her quick-to-smile teeth, who got anxious easily and had trouble understanding social cues, who would flail her hands and pull out her eyelashes and eyebrows when she was stressed. I hated her classmates for not going easier on her, for not cutting her some slack; I hated picturing her walking those hallways and not finding a single pair of eyes offering her refuge. Sometimes it felt nicer not to picture it at all.

I tried to console myself, though, as my dad seemed to do, with Earth’s pleasures. Mud pies and fireflies and dams. Oh, how I loved building a good rain-dam. I once dammed a gutter so good, it attracted a duck! But when I got to middle school, the hallways started turning on me, too. “Where’s your hammer?” the boys sneered, tugging at the loops in my carpenter pants. They mocked the way I wore my baseball cap, apparently too low. They called me “Jerry” and I didn’t understand why. In ninth grade I walked by a group of boys who shouted, “Seven!” It was so clear they were rating girls, ranking us as we walked by. Seven, I thought. Not bad! Until I found out it was the number of beers they would need to drink to have sex with me. Seven. Complete annihilation, then, to be worthy of touch.

I knew a braver girl, a sturdier soul, would laugh back at the boys. I knew how very small my problems were. But I didn’t have that thing inside me, whatever it was; when I felt for a backbone all I found was sand.

As I grew older, things only got worse for my sister. She tried going to community college but had to come home after things blew up with her roommate. She earned a degree but had trouble holding jobs. She was too flustered by the cash register, too chatty for the library. She’d come home at night to my mom’s worry, my father’s disappointment, and bellow behind her bedroom door. I’d picture her changing into elemental form, this tornado of loneliness and tears, and it scared me when she emerged with her face vacuumed of its eyebrows and lashes. Not because it looked alien, but because I knew a sadness that powerful lurked inside me. I preferred to vent it by slicing little nicks into my skin, was all.

My dad seemed weary of both of us, though, impatient for us to cheer up, to get it together, see the good in life and enjoy our time on this rock before it was over. “There is a grandeur in this view of life,” scolds a quote from Darwin hanging over my dad’s desk at his lab. The words are written in looping brown calligraphy, enclosed in a varnished wooden frame. The quote comes from the last sentence of On the Origin of Species. It is Darwin’s sweet nothing, his apology for deflowering the world of its God, his promise that there is grandeur—if you look hard enough, you’ll find it. But sometimes it felt like an accusation. If you can’t see it, shame on you.

<i>Ostracion Nasus, The Nose-Trunk</i>. (Courtesy Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.)

When my father’s mood was off, when he’d had too long a day, too many sips of beer or bourbon, he’d stomp up the stairs to communicate he’d had enough of our shit, breaking his cardinal rule—other people matter—by slamming doors or shaking us, a few times slapping my sister so hard it left pink imprints on her skin. My mother would cry under the mounting tension of it all. My middle sister, who had once been the pillar to us all, had understandably begun to extract herself, studying abroad in the deserts of Mali by the time I had landed in the tenth grade.

I remember thinking that there didn’t seem to be anywhere good to get to. That the outside world offered only vicious hallways, empty horizons. The inside world, only slamming doors. I see nothing gleaming, I wrote in my journal on April 8, 1999. A Sunday. I was newly sixteen. After school the next day, I drove to Walgreens. I made my way to the aisle full of sleeping pills. Some of the boxes were light blue, some of them dark blue, some of them purple. They all twinkled with papery-white stars promising slumber. I slipped a few lavender boxes under my coat. I did not want to cause suspicion.

When I made it home for dinner, everything felt lighter. I waited until the house had gone to sleep. Mom, Dad, curled into each other, great at not fighting when not conscious, Down. Oldest sister, fishlike lids mercifully shut for the evening, Down. Middle sister, sleeping in the home of another, better family somewhere in the middle of Africa, Down. Tiny white dog Charlie, Down. I tiptoed down to the basement. I had not yet read that animals tend to burrow when they are ready to die. I only knew that I was drawn there. I made a ceremony of popping each pill out of its little plastic bubble. One pill per minute. Even atheists like ritual.

I awoke to bright lights. The humiliation of a nurse, my worried mother in a hospital chair, paper sheets beneath my ass, a grid of Styrofoam ceiling tiles as far as the eye could see. I thought about how they looked like Saltines. No, Stoned Wheat Thins. No, Saltines. It was the next day. I was prescribed Paxil, which I was too proud to take. I was banned from attending a school field trip, deemed too much of a risk. The knowledge of what I did snaked odorlessly through the school hallways.

I bought pink lip gloss and smiled extra hard and vowed next time I’d do it right. I began fantasizing about an object. A shiny metal object that would do the job better than pills. By the end of high school, there were days the temptation was so great, I could hardly see past it.

After being blessed by Agassiz to take the work of collecting seriously, David Starr Jordan took to the water with abandon. All around the globe he traveled, in search of new species of fish to identify. He hunted them with nets, spears, tridents, even dynamite—anything that would help him to discover more of the unknown. For years Jordan worked, for decades, so tirelessly that he and his crew would eventually discover a full fifth of fish known to man in his day. By the thousand he reeled in new species, dreaming up names for them, punching those names into shiny tin tags, dropping the tags alongside their specimens into jars of ethanol, slowly stacking his discoveries higher and higher.

Until one spring morning in 1906, an earthquake struck and toppled his shimmering collection to the ground.

Hundreds of jars shattered against the floor. His fish specimens were mutilated by broken glass and fallen shelves. But worst of all were the names. Those carefully placed tin tags had been launched at random all over the ground. In some terrible act of Genesis in reverse, his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a heaping mass of the unknown.

But as he stood there in the wreckage, his life’s work eviscerated at his feet, this mustachioed scientist did something strange. He didn’t give up or despair. He did not heed what seemed to be the clear message of the quake: that in a world ruled by Chaos, any attempts at order are doomed to fail eventually. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and scrambled around until he found, of all the weapons in the world, a sewing needle.

He took the needle between his thumb and forefinger, laced it with thread, and aimed it at one of the few fish he recognized amid the destruction. With one fluid movement, he plunged the needle through the flesh at the fish’s throat. Then he used the trailing thread to stitch a name tag directly to the flesh itself.

For each fish he could salvage, he repeated this tiny gesture. No longer would he let the tin tags sit precariously in the jars. Instead, he sewed each name directly to the creature’s skin. A name stitched to its throat. To its tail. To its eyeball. It was a small innovation with a defiant wish, that his work would now be protected against the onslaughts of Chaos, that his order would stand tall next time she struck.

<i>Balistes Vetula, The Old-Wife</i>. Bottom: <i>Tetrodon Testudineus, The Toadfish</i>. (Courtesy Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.)

And that, that is why David Starr Jordan called out to me. I wondered what it was that allowed him to keep plunging his sewing needle at Chaos, in spite of all the clear warnings that he would never prevail. I wondered if he had stumbled across some trick, some prescription for hope in an uncaring world. And because he was a scientist, I held on to the distant possibility that his justification for persistence, whatever it was, fit into my father’s worldview. Perhaps he had cracked something essential about how to have hope in a world of no promises, about how to carry forward on the darkest days. About how to have faith without Faith.

But after reading about Jordan’s experience on Penikese Island, I was beginning to worry. If God was the light that lit his search through dark times, then he didn’t have any more to teach me.

I found my answer when he encountered Darwin. After leaving Penikese Island, Jordan took a job as a science teacher at a small prep school in Appleton, Wisconsin. And the ideas of Darwin, which had been just whispers when Jordan was a little boy, had become a gale-force wind with which every serious scientist needed to contend. On the Origin of Species was filled with all kinds of heresies—that all life on Earth evolved from “one primordial form,” that humans are still evolving and could, one day, even go extinct. But perhaps the most difficult idea for a taxonomist to accept was that species were not hard, immutable categories in nature. Darwin had observed so much variety in creatures traditionally assumed to be one species that his sense of a hard line between species had slowly begun to dissolve. Even that most sacred line, the supposed inability of different species to create fertile offspring, he realized was bunk. “It cannot be maintained that species when intercrossed are invariably sterile,” Darwin writes, “or that sterility is a special endowment and sign of creation.” Leading him finally to declare that species—and indeed all those fussy ranks taxonomists believed to be immutable in nature (genus, family, order, class, etc.)—were human inventions. Useful but arbitrary lines we draw around an ever-evolving flow of life for our “convenience.” “Natura non facit saltum,” he writes. Nature doesn’t jump. Nature has no edges, no hard lines.

Imagine how troubling that would be to you if you were a taxonomist. Learning that the objects you held in your hands were not puzzle pieces after all, not clues, but products of randomness. They were not pages in a sacred text, not symbols in a holy code, not rungs on a divine ladder. They were snapshots of Chaos in motion. For some, the idea was too maddening. It made the Earth feel too bleak, their pursuit too pointless. Louis Agassiz remained adamantly opposed to Darwin until his dying day. He lectured widely on the topic, calling the idea that humans could have evolved from apes “repulsive.”

But David Starr Jordan, of a younger generation, with a still-malleable mind, decided eventually, torturously, to break with his “master” on just this count. The closer he looked at nature, the more he realized he couldn’t deny Darwin’s observations, the reality of the gray area between species; he was beginning, reluctantly, to see it too. He writes, “I went over to the evolutionists with the grace of a cat the boy ‘leads’ by its tail across the carpet!”

Oh, how this line made me adore him. It made me want to wrap my arms around his chest, plant a kiss on his begrudging cheek, and tell him he was brave, he was good, for heeding the devastating truth of evolution and finding a way to forge on.

It meant, of course, that I could keep using him as my guide. It meant that, perhaps, as brazen as he seemed with his sewing-needle sword, he operated from a place of reason. It meant that denial was not necessarily a path to humiliation. It meant that maybe, just maybe, following in his overconfident footsteps would lead me somewhere beautiful, somewhere good. 


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