an effort to show that these seemingly transcendent achievements are exactly human achievements


Your book is about a trial—what’s at stake?

Trying Leviathan centers on a trial that took place in 1818 in Manhattan, where a jury had to determine whether a whale was a fish for the purpose of New York State law. This question had come up under a statute requiring that all fish oil be inspected and taxed. A savvy merchant in New York City, one Samuel Judd, who had three barrels of spermaceti in his possession (spermaceti is a waxy goo found primarily in the heads of sperm whales), turned the inspector away, pointing out that, according to the latest scientific authorities, whales weren’t fish, so he was off the hook for the fees. The dutiful inspector, James Maurice, chortled (“Whales not fish? OK, wiseguy!”) and slapped the cuffs on him. The issues at play in the trial—human taxonomy, oceanic monstrosity, the interpretation of Genesis, atheistical French philosophy, power politics in the early Republic—turned a minor legal fracas into a major sensation. For three days, the papers wrote about little else, and Maurice v. Judd would be the subject of endless jokes, scurrilous poems, double-entendres, angry Op-Eds, and backroom gossip for years to come. Before it was over, the trial had become a pivotal test case not just for whales and fish, but for comparative anatomy, natural history, and finally, really, for science itself in the US.

more from Cabinet here.