• Herman Melville
Harper & Brothers: 1851.

More than a century and a half after it was published, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick remains a key cultural bridge between human history and natural history — expressed in the vast and ominous shape of the whale. This epic novel is a laboratory of literature, created in an age before art and science became strictly demarcated.

This 1820 plate is one of a number by William Scoresby, a whaler's son who was the first person to draw and describe whales accurately. Credit: NOAA

Melville wrote his book — which drew on his own youthful experiences on a whaling ship — as a tribute to the first period of modern whaling in the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, which he claimed to be worth US$7 million a year to the fledgling United States. At the same time, science was undergoing a sea change as the gentleman scientists and polymaths of the century's start gave way to more specialized and professionalized successors.

Melville's attitude to, and use of, science in Moby-Dick was in line with the eclectic ethos of that period. Drawing on the work of luminaries such as William Scoresby, Thomas Beale, Georges Cuvier and Louis Agassiz, Melville used contemporary knowledge of natural history — or the lack of it — to his own ends.

Seventeen of the book's 135 chapters focus on whale anatomy or behaviour. Titles include 'The Sperm Whale's Head — Contrasted View' and 'The Right Whale's Head — Contrasted View'; such sections lay out the whales' physical structure with a wry mixture of known facts and arch analogy. (In a witty 2011 essay, marine biologist Harold Morowitz speculates on Melville as a “cetacean gastroenterologist or proctologist”.) Melville's must also be the first, and perhaps last, work of literature to feature a chapter on zooplankton.

In the famous Chapter 32, 'Cetology', Melville attempts to categorize species of whale as he would catalogue his library, in 'folios'. It was a playful gesture that reflected the fluid classification of cetacean species at the time. In The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), Beale notes that the French natural historian Bernard Germaine de Lacépède claimed that there were eight species of this whale; there are in fact only three: Physeter macrocephalus; Kogia sima, the dwarf sperm whale; and the pygmy, K. breviceps. Accordingly, Melville pronounces earlier attempts to describe whales “all wrong”, and deploys two contemporary authorities to bolster his claim: Scoresby and Beale.

The Natural History of the Sperm Whale was the first attempt to write scientifically about this deep-diving, open-ocean whale. The result of Beale's experiences as a surgeon on a British whaling ship, the book was full of observations on the animal's anatomy and behaviour. Cuvier had claimed that the sperm whale struck fear into “all the inhabitants of the deep”, but Beale knew this whale to be “a most timid and inoffensive animal”.

Moby-Dick author Herman Melville. Credit: TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY

Equally, Scoresby's groundbreaking An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) gave Melville insight into the other cetacean whose numbers were decimated by whaling: the bowhead (Balaena mysticetus), then known as the common whale. Scoresby, the son of a whaler, was a typical polymath of the time: hunter, scientist, clergyman and mesmerist. In his early career he had received encouragement from Joseph Banks, and his work set the benchmark for Arctic studies.

Melville was particularly fascinated by Scoresby's observations of an ancient Inuit harpoon embedded in a bowhead's blubber. “Who had darted that stone lance?” Melville's narrator Ishmael wonders, imagining (with slight exaggeration) that it had been thrown “long before America was discovered”. Science indicates that Melville may not have been far wrong. In 1999, tests on bowheads indicated that these animals can live for at least 200 years.

Of course, the greatest scientific figure of the age hovers over Melville. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, eight years after Moby-Dick came out. Melville's sole mention of Darwin is a quote — from Darwin's Voyage of a Naturalist (sic) — in the extracts at the start of Moby-Dick. He had read Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839) in preparation for his own 1854 work, The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles — as the Galapagos were then known. Melville visited the islands in 1841, six years after Darwin's fateful landing. Darwin's recorded observation of marine iguanas as “imps of darkness” seemed to set the tone for Melville's metaphoric view of the Galapagos, which he saw as “five-and-twenty heaps of cinders ... In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist”.

Such dark analogies are in line with a man who declared all human science to be “but a passing fable” — and yet created a fable of his own. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is a perpetually sceptical and questioning figure, a man attuned to science — a stark contrast to the vengeful Ahab and his pursuit of the whale that “dismasted” him. As the critic Eric Wilson, in his essay 'Melville, Darwin, and the Great Chain of Being', notes, a “primary subtext of Melville's novel is the passing of pre-Darwinian, anthropocentric thought, espoused by Ahab, and the inauguration of a version of Darwin's more ecological evolution, proffered by Ishmael”.

Melville lived through that process. US Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature (1836), with its declaration of moral law at the heart of the cosmos, was the new philosophy of Melville's youth. But as biographer Andrew Delbanco points out, Melville read A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), William Dean Howells's Darwinian-inflected view of society. Moby-Dick itself has been seen as a parody of the Transcendentalists' 'back-to-nature' excesses. But Melville does more than lambast philosophy or use science as interior decoration. He achieved a marvellous synthesis of his own poetic and philosophical impulse with the increasingly science-aware ethos of his age. And he did so with a sense of black humour that transcended Transcendentalism to prove that nature — and its science — was much stranger and more wonderful than they had imagined.

Moby-Dick failed to make any impact in Melville's lifetime, and he died forgotten in 1891. But his spirit of enquiry and experiment stood him in good stead as far as literary immortality is concerned. His allusive style chimed with a new century of discovery, and twentieth-century experimentalists of literature such as D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf reappraised him as a modernist who lived before modernism was invented.

Melville's masterpiece resonates powerfully with today's scientific concerns.

Melville's masterpiece also resonates powerfully with today's scientific concerns. Moby-Dick contrasts the glory of the whale with the threats posed by humanity. Melville even seems to anticipate the effects of a changing environment. In the moving chapter 'Does The Whale's Magnitude Diminish? — Will He Perish?', Melville wonders about a flooded future, but sees the whale as triumphant, spouting “his frothed defiance to the skies”. Yet by the time his book finally came into its own, Melville's vision had turned into a nightmare for the whale.

In 1961 alone, more whales died — nearly 75,000 — than in the entire span of Yankee whaling. With faster ships and grenade harpoons, new species had come within the hunters' remit: the blue and fin whales of the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean. And, like Scoresby, the “hip-booted cetologists” (as D. Graham Burnett describes them in his The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century, University of Chicago Press, 2012), entered a complicit arrangement with the modern whaling industry to inform their conclusions on whale anatomy, breeding and migration. It is telling, perhaps, that no one has written a follow-up to Moby-Dick to celebrate that particular adventure.