May 13, 2020

Why Fish Don't Exist

Our old friend Lulu Miller — former Radiolab producer, co-creator of Invisibilia — has been obsessed by the chaos that rules the universe since long before it showed up as a global pandemic, and a few weeks ago, she published a book about it. It’s called Why Fish Don’t Exist. It’s part scientific adventure story, part philosophical manifesto, part chest-ripped-open memoir. Jad called her up to talk about how an obscure 19th century ichthyologist with a checkered past helped her find meaning in the world, and what she means when she says fish aren’t real.

You can buy Lulu's book Why Fish Don’t Exist here.

This episode was produced by Pat Walters. 

Special thanks to Pan•American.

Support Radiolab today at 

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists




LULU MILLER: Picture the person you love the most. Picture them sitting on the couch, eating cereal, ranting about something totally charming. Like how it bothers them when people sign their emails with a single initial instead of just taking those four extra keystrokes to finish the job. Chaos will get them. Chaos will crack them from the outside with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet. Or unravel them from the inside with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories, topple your favorite cities, wreck any sanctuary you can ever build. It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world. The master that rules us all. My scientist father taught me early that there is no escaping the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is only growing, it can never be diminished, no matter what we do. A smart human accepts this truth. A smart human does not try to fight it. But one spring day in 1906, a tall American man with a walrus mustache dared to challenge our master.


JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. And that was Lulu Miller, former Radiolabber, co-founder of the podcast Invisibilia, and now author, reading from her brand new book, Why Fish Don’t Exist. And ...


JAD: All right, should we talk about your book?


LULU MILLER: Yeah, let’s do it.


JAD: Lulu, I love this book.


JAD: A few weeks ago, I called her up to talk about it.


JAD: It’s funny and it’s poignant and it’s personal and it’s historical and it’s philosophical. And it’s also, like, kind of weirdly resonant with this moment we’re in right now in a way that is -- yeah, maybe I want to ask you about.


LULU MILLER: So yeah it is -- I mean, it is about -- like, the book is -- I feel, like, self-conscious being like, "It is timely for our times." Because that's ...


JAD: No, but it’s right there.


LULU MILLER: But it really is, like, deeply about how to move forward when everything just gets so messed up impossibly by the world.


JAD: And so the superstructure of the whole book is that you’re telling the story, so all of these kind of questions get filtered through this one guy. So you tell the story of a guy named David Starr Jordan. So who is he?


LULU MILLER: So he is a kind of obscure naturalist, an ichthyologist. So he specialized in fish. And he was from the 1800s, and then his life crossed into -- a little bit into the 20th century and he was an American. Grew up in New York and was in Indiana for a while and then ended up as actually the President of Stanford. He counts himself as having discovered, he and his team having discovered, a full fifth of fish known to humans in his day. So over 2,000 fish. Like ton -- I mean it’s, in most people’s life to discover -- in most scientists’ life to discover one species is huge.


JAD: How did you get interested in him?


LULU MILLER: He was basically this off-hand anecdote on a tour I was getting of the California Academy of Sciences, so a science museum. And there was just this detail about after the 1906 earthquake, thousands of the fish -- the jars broke and the fish were separated. And the person in charge of that collection instead of just giving up, he invented this technique of tying a label to a fish. So tying the name to the flesh.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU MILLER: And in that moment I thought, "Oh, what a foolish human." Like, this is -- his day job, he’s a taxonomist, his job is to order the unknown.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU MILLER: And so he -- so here he goes for 30 years, do-do-do-do-do, catching fish, naming them, putting them in jars. Stacking, stacking, stacking, stacking, stacking. And then, boom! An earthquake comes and destroys it and separates the names from the fish. And to me there’s something -- there’s a message in that. Like, the message I read in that is: In a world ruled by chaos, any pursuit of order is inherently doomed.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU MILLER: And then, like, years later, when I had gone and messed up a lot of things in my life, and was just in a place where I felt really lonely and unsure of the path ahead, like, literally that guy resurfaced in me. Like, I was like, "Who was -- oh my gosh! I’m like that guy with the needle. Am I being kook --" I mean, specifically I was thinking about, you know, I was -- I had left Radiolab, you know, and I was trying to write fiction. And that wasn’t going so hot [laughs]. And, like, I was -- I had screwed up this relationship that I loved and I was trying to get him back by pining and by reaching out to him and by being patient. And years and years were going by and I -- I wondered, like, "Am I just leading myself into real humiliation and danger? And I think I am." But then every now and then I’d wonder about that guy and be like, "Well, but maybe this is the path you -- maybe you just have to go through doubt to accomplish something. And maybe that guy wasn’t a fool. Maybe actually things ended up okay for him. What happened to him?" And that’s what started what I thought was an essay


JAD: I see.


LULU MILLER: And then -- and then kind of spiraled into this whole book, because then it just went to somewhere way beyond my need for moral instruction.


JAD: Wow, okay.


LULU MILLER: Does that make -- yeah.


JAD: That makes perfect sense. Yeah. It’s like a -- the -- your tour was a seed planted that only bloomed when you found yourself in that same darkness.


LULU MILLER: Totally. I just wanted to read him like a parable.


JAD: Gotcha. And so in the book, you track his life through all of these ups and downs. And I wonder if you can give a sketch of that parable, of his life, without giving too much away.


LULU MILLER: Yeah. David Starr Jordan was born at the darkest time of the year, which is perhaps why he became so preoccupied with the stars. "While husking corn on autumn evenings," he writes, "I became curious as to the names and significance of the celestial bodies." He could not just enjoy their twinkling. He found them a mess he needed ordered, known. When he was about eight years old, he got his hands on a atlas of astronomical charts and began comparing what he saw on the page to what he saw above his head. Night by night he went creeping out of the house, attempting to learn the name of every star. And according to him, it took him only five years to bring order to the entire night sky. As a reward he chose Starr as his middle name and wore it proudly for the rest of his life. Having mastered the celestial, David Starr Jordan turned to the terrestrial. On his way home from school, he began to ever so occasionally pluck a velvety blue pom-pom or silken orange star from the grass. Some he’d sniff and let fall to the ground, but occasionally one would linger in his fingers and make it back to his bedroom where it would lie on his bed and taunt him with its mysterious arrangement of petals.


LULU MILLER: He’s this sweet nerdy boy who loves stars and then he loves flowers and eventually he loves fish. And no one cares that his mom throws away his early maps and, like, he can’t get a girl and he can’t get a job and he’s just like, "But I love nature!" And how can you -- like, I just loved him. And he devoted himself to what he called "The hidden and insignificant." And he had learned that from a guy in his town who loved nature and told him, like, the good naturalist notices the hidden and insignificant. Like, that the dandelions and buttercups will show you more about, you know, nature’s hidden order than the big showy roses and hibiscus or whatever.And so that's kind of what he devoted himself to looking at and studying, and I -- I loved that idea. And then on that quest, he eventually started getting some traction and some success, and he started to really rise and rise quickly. He gets promoted, he gets a wife, he gets kids, he gets awards. He becomes the first president of Stanford. And that is when the earthquake hits.


LULU MILLER: Imagine seeing 30 years of your life undone in one instant. Imagine whatever it is you do all day, whatever it is you care about, whatever you foolishly pick and prod at each day, hoping against all signs that suggest otherwise, that it matters. Imagine finding all the progress that you have made on that endeavor smashed at your feet. Those words go here. Fish were everywhere. Glass was strewn all over the floor. Flounders bashed further flat by fallen stone. Eels severed by shelves, blowfish popped by shards of glass. There was a pungent smell of ethanol and corpse. But far worse than any of the carnal damage was the existential. For many of those specimens left intact, hundreds of them, nearly a thousand, their holy name tags had scattered all over the lab floor. In just a few seconds, Genesis had been reversed, his meticulously named fish had become a mass of the unknown again.


LULU MILLER: And it wasn't just the earthquake. Like, shortly before that his beloved daughter Barbara had died, and a little bit before that his wife had died. His first collection of fish actually got struck by lightning and burned to the ground.


JAD: Oh man!


LULU MILLER: Yeah, so this guy’s life was just uncannily plagued by chaos. And he never seemed fazed. Like, he just always kept going. And that was what really drew me in about him, because when I think about the chaos that rules us, that’s always been really hard for me.


JAD: Hmm. And you were -- you were sort of introduced to this idea when you were a little kid. It comes from your dad, right?




JAD: What was it that he would tell you when you were young about chaos and nothing and our place in the order of things?


LULU MILLER: I mean, he just jumped really quickly to everything is meaningless. Like, the minute we could understand words, just like, "Ah! Nothing means nothing, and you’ll soon be dead!" Like, everything was a lecture on our place in the world and how small it was and how insignificant we were, and how there’s no plan and there’s no God and there’s no magic and there’s no destiny and there’s not even cosmic justice, really. Like, try to be a decent human, for sure, that matters because -- because nothing matters, actually how we treat each other is all that matters. And I think he’s a very joyful -- and he’s a scientist -- and he’s a very joyful, funny, life-loving person. And so I think as a little kid I made the calculation like, "Okay, if you believe these things, you turn joyful like Dad. Like, okay that -- he got that way." And so then I would believe all the things but then slowly I’d be like, "Oh why am I so sad?" You know? Like, or, you know, and I think ...


JAD: [laughs] Yeah, I know what you mean.


LULU MILLER: It was this weird -- yeah. So it was this weird -- you know, there's the carpe diem, there's the -- like, there is such a bright side to that stuff, you know? Like, if nothing matters, go taste life and go be courageous and, like, do the thing that might fail because it doesn’t matter, and -- but what do you do when that thought turns dark, or when you’re having a hard day and then that thought really makes it worse.


JAD: I think it’s -- I don’t know. I’ve found myself -- I thought about the people in my life. I mean, you know, Radiolab with the history that it has had, you know, we’ve talked to, God, millions of scientists. And there are -- there is a particular cast of mind that is exactly as you describe your dad, and also David Starr Jordan. This kind of relentless optimist, almost like somebody who embraces the meaninglessness of the world. Like an exuberant atheist, in a way? Like, there's no meaning ...


LULU MILLER: Yes. Totally.


JAD: ... and isn’t it marvelous?


LULU MILLER: And let’s party! Yes.


JAD: And let’s just party!


LULU MILLER: Like, totally. He’s an exuberant -- yes, yes.


JAD: And I hear you asking the question -- okay I agree with you, but I can’t quite get to the phrase: And isn’t it marvelous? I can’t quite get there.




JAD: How do I get there? Like ...




JAD: So I feel you inquiring that about David Starr Jordan through the book. Like, how are you the way you are in the face of all of this chaos?


LULU MILLER: Totally. That is so well put. Yeah. Like, I hear you, I hear you. And then, how do I get there?


JAD: Yeah.


LULU MILLER: And maybe I don’t -- you know, poor David Starr Jordan sort of who I just, like, threw my just, you know, existential angst onto, but I think I thought he might be -- he might have an answer to, like, how do you manufacture that ...


JAD: Yeah.


LULU MILLER: ... that ability to go on, on a dark day if you don’t believe in anything. [laughs]


JAD: And Lulu does sort of find an answer for what propelled David Starr Jordan. But it turns out that thing, that belief, also led him down a really dark path. And we’ll go down that path with Lulu after the break.

JAD: Hey, I’m Jad. This is Radiolab. We’ve been talking to Lulu Miller about her new book, Why Fish Don’t Exist, which is about the chaos and meaninglessness of the universe, and particularly about a guy, a scientist named David Starr Jordan, who was just plagued by that chaos, but somehow found a way to push through it all.


LULU MILLER: Yeah. And I think the way that he figured out -- you know, the way that he kept going, a key part was that he found purpose in ordering things. He thought that he was solving the divine plan, this hierarchy in nature laid out by God. And he would eventually come to believe in Darwinism and let go of that idea, but he still thought he was uncovering a sacred hierarchy. He just believed that this ordering of the natural world had purpose. And that alone buoyed him through really hard times. But, like, that very belief in an order is also what started to make things really turn for him.


JAD: And we actually touched on this part of David Starr Jordan’s story in an episode that we did over the summer called Unfit.


LULU MILLER: So here we go. So this -- I guess, so this whole thing begins with a guy, and his name is Mark Bold.


JAD: It is the story of the Supreme Court case Buck v Bell, which made it legal to sterilize people based on eugenics, that is the idea that some categories of humans should not exist. The story goes into the history of that idea and also the very troubling ways it is still with us today. And David Starr Jordan at a certain point, quick spoiler alert if you haven't read the book yet, he makes an appearance.


LULU MILLER: So my dude was, like, one of the earliest, loudest, most powerful proponents of eugenics.


JAD: Got it.


LULU MILLER: You can see, like, in the late 1800s, which is decades before most American eugenicists got the fever, he’s slipping it into his courses at Stanford. So he’s, like, telling smart people these ideas that poverty is linked to the blood and can be exterminated.


JAD: Hmm.


LULU MILLER: He would trot these ideas out in front of, like, hundreds of politicians. And he says, "You know, this is a matter of life and death for the nation." And he says, "The -- the republic will endure only as long as the human harvest is good."


JAD: Ugh. That’s a horrible phrase.


LULU MILLER: And he wrote -- this is a book.


JAD: He called -- he wrote a book called The Human Harvest?


LULU MILLER: I'm holding it right here. And it’s ...


JAD: Oh, that’s -- what a horrible title!


LULU MILLER: And it’s -- and it’s -- it’s horrible inside. He tells -- to scare people, he tells people about this town in Italy called Aosta, which for about 1,300 years was this sort of refuge for people, you know, with disabilities or deformities. People would send them there and the church would take care of them. And then they could often get married and they worked the fields and have families and they’re helped by the church. And some people see that as this beautiful tale of, like, helping society’s most vulnerable. And he went there and wrote about it as a "veritable chamber of horrors."


JAD: Hmm.


LULU MILLER: Basically he says -- he describes the people living there and say they have less decency than the pig. And he -- he, like, says that it’s a different -- it’s a subspecies of human.


JAD: Whoa.


LULU MILLER: And he says this is where, you know, America’s gonna be going if we don’t take action.


JAD: Whoa. So your guy, who sort of seemed to be like a guide for you out of meaninglessness, all of a sudden you discover he’s a eugenicist. How did you -- how did that sit with you?


LULU MILLER: Oh I mean, it was just utter revulsion. Like, I wanted to just throw my arms off him. And then I felt a little lost, but I think I started to try to really understand, like, what went so wrong here. And after looking at tons of his stuff, I actually think the sin wasn’t so much the desire to find order in nature, I think it was his certainty. Like, things really began to turn for the worse when he just white-knuckled his beliefs. That the categories between people are fixed and real and immutable. And so, like, at the end of the book, the thing I really come away with is a real wariness of the categories around us. I think, you know, that’s why I titled the book the way I did, Why Fish Don’t Exist. I know it’s kind of an obnoxious, or maybe seemingly like -- what’s the word? It’s like irritating. But ...


JAD: [laughs] No it’s -- I find it intriguing. I was like, what? Hmm? It’s just a ...


LULU MILLER: Yeah. I think it could be just, like, wrong. I don’t know.


JAD: It’s a bold title.


LULU MILLER: But yeah.


JAD: Well, I don’t think it'll spoil anything if I ask this question, but let’s explain the title. Why don’t fish exist? Like, what does that even mean?


LULU MILLER: Yeah. Yeah. I think the best way to do it is just to say okay so, like, picture a salmon and a lungfish, which looks like a very fishy fish. It’s kind of big.


JAD: A big chest, right?


LULU MILLER: Right. And then picture a cow.


JAD: Mm-hmm.


LULU MILLER: And then just ask which of those two are most closely related.


  1. Mmm.


LULU MILLER: And I think you -- you kind of intuitively, a biology student would say, "Oh, the lungfish and the salmon are -- they’re most closely related. They’re both fish. They both live in the water, they’re both ..."


JAD: Yep, they both swim.




JAD: Flop their tails.


LULU MILLER: But then these taxonomists will -- will show you slowly why actually a cow and a lungfish are much more closely related. Because if you peel them and look inside, the lungfish have what are almost lungs. They have a thing called an epiglottis, they have a more similar structured heart. Basically, you can see that lungfish is more closely related to a cow. And when you start to accept that, that all the things that are kinda swimming in the water, that some of them are more closely related to us than one another, then you have to start to realize that fish is like this sloppy gerrymandered category of creatures, some of which are very close to us, some of which are very far, that we smoosh together so it’s like this ...


JAD: But why couldn’t you -- that’s completely fascinating. Why couldn’t you -- like, gerrymandered is a -- is a good word. So let’s just -- if I head in that direction, why couldn’t I just redraw the boundaries in a way that makes more sense? I could say, "Okay, we say the word 'fish,' but we probably mean five or six different things. And there’s this category of fish, which have a whole lot to do with cows, and then maybe us too. And then there’s this other kind that’s more fishy [laughs] in some way. Like I mean, couldn’t you sort of just redraw the boundaries, as opposed to say there are none?


LULU MILLER: You could -- oh, you totally could. And scientists have. I mean, the -- the boundaries, as you're talking about them, would be the -- so the cow-y-like fish are the -- ugh, this name is horrible, but it’s sar -- I don’t think I can even do it, but it’s sarcotep -- sarcopterygii. And then there’s the fishy fishy kind of salmon and bass fish, like, which are the actinopterygii. But then there’s also the chondrichthyes, the myxini, and then there's tunicates which -- and so you can do that and you could make about five different groups. And that’s fine, I’m great with that! Like, I think -- I think it’s just admitting that this term "fish," which feels so basic and inarguable, is actually a term that we use to hide nuance and to keep ourselves more separate. And that’s what -- that’s what matters to me. Because then it’s like, "Oh, well what else do I have wrong?"


JAD: Yeah.


LULU MILLER: Like, you know, even the other day, like, these -- these little just ways that we value one life over the other, in terms of who we’re gonna give a ventilator.


JAD: Yeah.


LULU MILLER: You know? And these little judgments of, like, "Well, if they’re disabled maybe they don’t deserve it." And, you know, people -- there are some people crying out and saying, "Hey look at -- what are you saying right now? Like, because I fit into this category, which is to me analogous to fish, like, because you think I am that far away from you, I don’t get to live?" Like ...


JAD: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm


LULU MILLER: And so I think that’s how I see it alive is just, like, mistrust the big technical terms and mistrust the tiny basic terms, because actually our understanding of our world is so just cartoonishly limited. There’s just so much wildness. Like, there's just so much waiting out there.


JAD: Yeah. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about -- I mean so ...


LULU MILLER: Can I tell you something cool?


JAD: Of course. Always.


LULU MILLER: [laughs] So okay, I'm like all -- okay, so two nights ago ...


JAD: Okay.


LULU MILLER: I’m, like, hammering this, like, fish is so basic and it matters. And it matters to -- it matters that, like, you have to believe that it’s not a thing. Like, this is, like, my -- this has been my, like, schtick. My -- I don’t know, not schtick because I’m just starting to say it, finally.


JAD: [Laughs]


LULU MILLER: But this has been my, like, driving, weird obsession for 10 freaking years. Like, I cannot tell you how many eyes I’ve made dull over when they hear I’m writing a book and then I try to tell them what it’s about. And then they, like, go and -- go off to the cheese table because they don’t -- they feel so worried and bad for me. Like, they’re just -- okay so, like, I’ve been in this hole thinking about the danger of this word "fish."


JAD: Uh huh.


LULU MILLER: And -- and so two nights ago, I was in the bath with my kid, Jude, who’s a year and a half years old. And there’s a little cardboard -- like, a little drawing of a fish by the door of our bathroom. And my wife came in to say hi. Like, we're splitting up days, and she’s working in the morning -- you know, like anyway. So she -- she says hi. And -- and he looks up. He -- he smiles at her. She gets the smile I never get. And then ...


JAD: [laughs]


LULU MILLER: And then he looks to the left and he just goes, "sheesh." And she -- and she was like, "fish?" And he was like, "sheesh." And he said "fish" for the first time. So he doesn’t have that many words. Like this -- I'm -- I was trying to count it out. I think it’s his eleventh word.


JAD: Oh wow!


LULU MILLER: And that should be the fall from innocence. Like, that should be -- like, and thereth he ejected from the garden of Eden I literally just spent 10 years trying to show people the path back into. Like, let go of fish, you get the goodies. And then he says it, and that should be, like, I watched my son shoot his innocence dead. Like, with this word. Like, that should be the fall from grace in real time. But instead I was just so proud!


JAD: Aww!


LULU MILLER: Like, it was so cool! Like, it was so sweet and -- and he’s got it! Like, he -- then I -- you know, I don’t know. I don’t know what -- I don’t know, like -- but I just know that the feeling didn’t line up with the meaning I was supposed to make. [laughs]


JAD: Lulu Miller. Her book is Why Fish Don't Exist. It is a great book. I don't say that lightly. Thanks to Pat Walters for producing this segment. I’m Jad Abumrad. Radiolab will be back with you next week.


LULU MILLER: Okay, we’ve got a new world. Jude, what’s -- what’s that?


JUDE: Sheesh.


LULU MILLER: What is it?


JUDE: Sheeshy.


LULU MILLER: It’s a fish? What is that?


JUDE: Sheesh.


LULU MILLER: A fish? Oh, Jude! A fish!


JUDE: Sheesh. Sheesh. [splash] Oh!


LULU MILLER: Aw, yeah. That’s a hard one.


[COLLEEN: This is Colleen calling from South City, St. Louis, Missouri. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design and Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. And our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


Copyright © 2019 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. 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 New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.