ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: A new book called "Why Fish Don't Exist" begins at one of the lowest moments in a famous scientist's life. David Starr Jordan had spent his career identifying new species of fish. He carefully stored and tagged thousands of them in glass jars. Then the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 hit.
LULU MILLER, BYLINE: (Reading) 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.
(Reading) 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.
SHAPIRO: That's author Lulu Miller reading from her book, which is part biography, part memoir. Lulu is a colleague, a founder and former host of NPR's Invisibilia podcast. As she tells the story, David Starr Jordan used that sewing needle to start putting his life's work back together. Instead of despairing, he sewed identification tags onto the fish. Lulu told me that grit is what sparked her interest in this man.
MILLER: How did he just come up with optimism when also staring a sort of seeming meaninglessness and utter doomed odds in the face? And that, for me, is just a personal question because I've always grown up without faith and with a father who was sort of dogmatically atheist and shoving meaninglessness down our throats whenever possible.
MILLER: And so I think - I don't know. It was just this intuitive question of, well, how is this guy so hopeful and sure of himself?
SHAPIRO: His life's mission was imposing order on chaos. It was taxonomy. It was naming and identifying and categorizing things, specifically fish. And that project of finding order in a world of chaos clearly appeals to you beyond the naming of fish. What do you think it is about that drive in particular?
MILLER: I think because it's something we all do, I mean, even as a journalist, as someone trying to make sense of just the utter chaos and confusion all around us. I think sometimes that lust, that craving for order or for meaning, on one hand, is the most natural thing in the world because otherwise we're just overwhelmed and bulldozed by the confusion, but on the other side, the desire to see a story or see order can really be dangerous, and that, I think, is just something I always want to study and get better at balancing.
SHAPIRO: I mean, what your book reveals so beautifully is that, as tempting as it is to impose order on chaos, it's, like, a dangerous seduction. And when you put something in a box, you risk snapping off the little filaments and ornaments that would otherwise make it not fit in the box.
MILLER: Yeah, exactly. And I think that in order to live, we are constantly doing this almost gerrymandering in everything we do - putting people together and saying they're all like this or putting categories of creatures or ideas. I mean, in anything we do, we're looking for these proxies to parse the chaos. And, I mean, honestly, I didn't know when I started out the book that this would be where it led. It was sort of following this wild man story that led me into some of these deeper ideas about why we should mistrust categories...
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah.
MILLER: ...Which sounds so abstract when you talk about it like this, but where his story leads makes you see why that really matters.
SHAPIRO: It reminds me of a line that the artist Taylor Mac has, which is that comparison is an act of violence. You know, when you say this is like that, you sort of gloss over the uniqueness of the this.
MILLER: You do. And yet who is anyone to say don't do it? Because otherwise...
MILLER: ...How do you walk through the world and wonder, is that leaf poisonous or something I can eat? Like, you have to have proxies to get anywhere. But once we name a thing, we run the risk of stopping to see it.
SHAPIRO: So the book takes some really surprising turns. And while I don't want to give away too much of the story, the man who you viewed as a hero for so long - the first president of Stanford University, the famous scientist who has lakes and rivers and a mountain named after him - turns out not to be a hero at all. In fact, he's a truly terrible human being who inflicts tremendous harm on other people. At one point, you write I had been fashioning myself after a villain.
SHAPIRO: What did that discovery do to you?
MILLER: It totally confused me. I mean, I think I went into it wanting a parable and wondering, if I behave like him, with just foolish optimism, will everything be OK? And then on one hand, he came out showing a cautionary tale. I mean, the breadth of his wreckage, his violence, his cruelty is utterly stunning. Like, you can't imagine that a single person can harm so many people's lives.
SHAPIRO: It is specific, and it is sweeping.
SHAPIRO: I mean, there is, like, an individual murder plot, and then there is also enormous public policy implications.
MILLER: Exactly. But then at the same time, I mean, the truth is he, too, was complex. And actually, I think, something I've been reckoning with as I'm thinking about this moment, I think he actually also has some helpful lessons. You know, I think the truth is, you know, I wanted some moral clarity and moral instruction, and then I got more ambiguity and complexity. But yeah.
MILLER: So yeah, he's got a lot of bad...
SHAPIRO: Like every good story, it's not as clear as it seems from the outside.
MILLER: (Laughter) Yeah.
SHAPIRO: When you talk about the valuable lessons he does offer us, there is a passage where he writes about the San Francisco earthquake that I just thought was so beautiful. I mean, I tweeted it because I thought this is something people need to hear right now.
SHAPIRO: Will you just read this section? It's Page 93.
MILLER: Oh, sure. Yes.
(Reading) It is the lesson of the earthquake and fire that man cannot be shaken and cannot be burned. The houses he builds are houses of cards, but he stands outside of them and can build again. It is a wonderful thing to build a great city; more wonderful still is it to be a city, for a city is composed of men, and forever, man must rise above his own creations - that which in man is greater than all that he can do.
SHAPIRO: I just love that sentiment, that whatever people build is not as good as the people themselves.
MILLER: That's a rousing thought right now.
SHAPIRO: It's funny. I was going to ask - having built so much of your life on the lessons that you were taught by David Starr Jordan, when you find out that he's not a person to model your life after, what happens? But it sounds to me like even if the foundation of the structure was pulled out from underneath, the structure can still stand.
MILLER: Yeah, I think so. And I think, honestly, if we'd talked about this two months ago, I'd be much more - he's a cautionary tale. Be wary of your beliefs. Be open to uncertainty.
MILLER: Preachy, preachy, preach. But I'm talking you in the midst of utter chaos, and he was really good in chaos. I mean, disaster struck his life again and again and again, and he reacted instantaneously. Like, he did not sit around and bemoan what he lost; he just tried new stuff. And so I'm suddenly thinking, I think I just wrote this book that was a cautionary tale, but - shoot - there are lessons for this moment, which is to not sit around studying what's lost and stolen from you but to actually just use this as a moment to innovate.
SHAPIRO: Lulu Miller's new book is "Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story Of Loss, Love, And The Hidden Order Of Life." It's so great to talk to you. Thank you.
MILLER: Thank you so much, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLAR BEAR'S "PEEPERS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.