The half-ton squid caught in waters south of New Zealand in February – 33 feet long and weighing 1089 pounds – isn’t kosher, but it can still serve as food for Jewish thought.
Such sea-creatures – this one a representative of the species Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni – were long thought to be the products of overactive imaginations.
Until 1873, there were only claims, but no hard evidence, that monstrously-sized squids existed. That year, though, a fisherman off the coast of Newfoundland struck a large sea-creature with a hook and then hacked off one of its tentacles. The appendage was later measured to be nineteen feet long. Over subsequent decades, intact carcasses of such giant squids (a smaller species than the “colossal squid” of the recent catch) were discovered washed ashore on various beaches. Thus ended the centuries over which the animal was assumed to be fictional.
Only a few years earlier, though, Arthur Mangin, a celebrated French zoologist, dismissed sailors’ claims that they had seen the animal, urging that:
“the wise, and especially the man of science, not admit into the catalogue those stories which mention extraordinary creatures… the existence of which would be… a contradiction of the great laws of harmony and equilibrium which have sovereign rule over living nature.”
About 700 years before that, the venerated Jewish scholar Maimonides was crafting his powerful literary legacy. Not only a Jewish legal scholar and authority of the first order (whose religious texts are a mainstay of Jewish study to this day), Maimonides was a philosopher and scientist as well. A respected physician, he penned medical texts and served as the official doctor of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt. Had one not known that Maimonides was the name of a man, a contemporary thinker once wrote, one would naturally assume it was a university.
Among Maimonides’ important works is his commentary on the Mishneh, the foundation of the Talmud. Commenting on the Mishneh’s reference to a bizarre creature – a spontaneously generated rodent – Maimonides wrote:
“…the existence of [such a creature] is something well-known; countless people have told me that they have seen it, even though the existence of such a living creature is incomprehensible and cannot be explained in any way.” [Commentary to the Mishneh, Chullin, chapter 9]
The difference between the reactions of the two scientists, each confronted with a claim that flew in the face of conventional wisdom, is subtle but profound.
Both are compelled to state that the reports before them defy scientific explanation. But whereas Mangin cockily counseled a final rejection of any possibility that the report he received might have merit, Maimonides – even as he notes the inadequacy of scientific knowledge to explain what he has heard – allows for the incomprehensible.
The Talmudic creature could well have been intended as a theoretical construct. There are other references in the Talmud – like one to a “building that flies through the air” – that seem intended as thought-experiments (although, of course, the airplane became entirely real a couple of thousand years later). And Maimonides, famed for his rationalist approach to things, could well have so characterized the rodent case. But, an open-minded thinker first and foremost, he chose instead to simply express the inadequacy of science to explain the claim, allowing for the possibility that the popular lore might nevertheless somehow prove accurate.
That, in fact, is what a true scientist does when evidence doesn’t “seem to fit.” In most cases, an experiment clears up the matter or an observation is conclusively revealed to be flawed. In some, a new mechanism is postulated and demonstrated. And in others, a revolutionary breakthrough – like the discovery of DNA or an idea like relativity or quantum mechanics – turns yesterday’s “science” entirely on its head. And at yet other times, a question mark simply remains.
Spontaneous generation is a discredited notion today (although it is intriguing that contemporary science’s theory of life’s origin is predicated in its own way upon essentially the same thing). But regardless, how Maimonides treated a report of it in his day illustrates how a true scientist never loses the sense of the possible, acknowledges the unknown and maintains always the feeling of wonder that, in the end, leads to discovery.
Scientific hubris – the conviction that contemporary knowledge is ultimate knowledge – is no stranger to contemporary times. And so, in return for providing the recently captured sea-monster our acknowledgment of its existence, the colossal squid has provided us, measure for measure, an invaluable lesson.