Chapter 105: Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? Will He Perish?

In Chapter 105, Ishmael addresses two questions of science pertaining to the whale. Unlike similar chapters of Moby-Dick, however, Ishmael approaches answers to these questions with very little satire, which makes the chapter an interesting glimpse into the logically inaccurate scientific thinking of the time.

The first question asks of the physiology of whales — are whales smaller now than they used to be? Some of Ishmael’s answer points to fossil records — an approach not unlike modern scientific method — but some of his answer also tends towards the abstract philosophy of early science — if we know other species of mammal, including humans, have gotten bigger through the ages, than why would the whale be any different?

Ishmael’s second question asks more of ecology, and points to a far less informed or developed field of thinking — hunting as we now do, will we eventually exterminate whales? From a contemporary perspective, I think most of us assume that back then no one cared about whale extinction as long as they were making money at it. That may have been true, but Ishmael also provides a logical (though naive) argument to the contrary: “Forty men in one ship hunting the Sperm Whale for forty-eight months think they have done extremely well, and thank God, if at last they carry home the oil of forty fish.” How could humans possibly exterminate vast oceans of whales at such a rate?

Of course, Ishmael does not account for economics in his reasoning, the fact that more and more ships will be launched to the hunt as long as there are whales to kill, which is exactly what happened. For me, Ishmael’s arguments also illuminate the politics of current debates on regulations of fisheries, and otherwise. Fishermen feel they know best, being involved daily in the industry, and it’s hard to have your expertise questioned by someone outside your field. At the same time, standing on the deck of one boat makes it hard to see the bigger picture, ecological, economical, or otherwise.

Chapter 105: Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? — We He Perish?

How now, Pliny, you imply diminishment
In fanciful data of yore.
The whale at present has grown with significance,
You misjudged greatly before.

Relentlessly,
Across the sea,
We hunt the whale for eternity,
But as reviled
For guts and guile,
The whale will never disappear.

How now, landsman, you argue extensively —
The whale will perish in full,
Just like bison, that man did exterminate
Down to the very last bull.

Relentlessly,
Across the sea,
We hunt the whale for eternity,
But as reviled
For guts and guile,
The whale will never disappear.

We are whalemen, and as such infallible
In all cetacious regards,
And nothing truer bespoke we with amity:
Extinction’s not in the cards!

Extinction’s not in the cards!

(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 31, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea February 27, 2011

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