The History of Fishes

See this fish? He’s bad news.

This is not just any fish. This fish nearly punched the lights out of the Enlightenment.

Oh, he seems likable enough for a red gurnard. But at parties, after he gets into the brandy, he parades around and insists on being called Aspitrigla cuculus of the Scorpaeniformes (I understand they have a lovely place by the sea). And in his day he was capable of some violence: this cuculus nearly killed calculus.

The picture is from Francis Willughby’s De Historia Piscium, also known as the History of Fishes. It is a lovely piece of work filled with detailed illustrations, but it is especially distinguished by a curious footnote. Published at great expense in 1686 by the Royal Society, it was a commercial flop. So much so that they Royal Society lacked the funds to proceed with its next offering: Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. It is only because Edmund Halley “saw something in this Newton kid” and underwrote the first edition Newton’s magnum opus that any of us exist, since as you know, if the Principia had not been published, none of us would be here today.

There’s a paper on the History of Fishes by Sachiko Kusukawa. It’s behind a registration wall, but the abstract is fun reading. Here’s an excerpt:

The Historia Piscium was a work begun by Francis Willughby (1635-1672, F.R.S. 1663), completed by John Ray (1627-1705, F.R.S. 1667) and brought into print with the financial support of The Royal Society. The text and illustrations of the Historia Piscium reflect the 17th-century origins of the enterprise: Ray’s quest to recover the knowledge and language lost in the Fall, and The Royal Society’s support for establishing a reformed natural history of fish through publication. Ray’s biblical belief in the corruption of human language and knowledge led him to reform natural history through ‘characteristic marks’. He sought to define, classify and depict fishes through their external features, which when matched up, would yield the same nature, and thus allow humans to identify and give a name to a fish.

This leads to a pet topic of mine. Christianity figures prominently in many scientific histories. Often enough, misplaced theology led to good science, and in aggregate this science ultimately led to the modern Western scientific mindset (which in turn put pressure on Christianity, but that’s another story). In the same way that magical alchemical reasoning prepared the way for modern chemistry, was there something special about the Christian mindset in the High Middle Ages that put European science on its spectacular ascent?

One thought on “The History of Fishes”

  1. I enjoyed The Soul of Science, which discusses some of the worldview implications of Christian beliefs that likely had a significant influence on the development of the modern Western scientific mindset. The other idea that I got out of this book is that the progress of advancing human knowledge isn’t a strictly monotonically-increasing (i.e., “positivistic”) process, but rather one that is more stuttering, as we posit things that turn out not to be true and then have to re-think them. Social Processes and Proofs of Theorems and Programs is a similarly fascinating little read, which pokes a bit at the soft underbelly of scientific dogma. :)

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