Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science


How the unlikely and unexplainable, strange and terrifying, spawned the age of science.

Finding regularity in nature is the bread and butter of science. We know that reptiles lay eggs, while mammals bear live young; the Earth revolves around the sun every 365.25 days; electrons glom onto protons like bears onto honey. But what if some oddity seems to defy the laws of nature, like the platypus, an egg-laying mammal? What about an anomaly like a two-headed snake? Or a newborn baby who seems to be neither boy nor girl, but something in between?

These questions fascinated the founding fathers of science, and their attempts to explain such rarities and marvels helped shape modern science. In fact, nearly all the great philosophers and scientists of 17th century Europe—Descartes, Newton, and Bacon notably among them—were obsessed with anomalies. If they couldn’t explain the unlikely—a solar eclipse, a comet hurtling toward Earth, a narwhal tusk (was it a unicorn?)—all bets were off about an underlying explanation of nature.

Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, has spent decades studying the emergence of modern science. One formative experience, she says, was a graduate-school seminar where she and fellow student Katharine Park noticed something strange. The philosophers they studied in their class on 17th century metaphysics—Bacon, Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke—were obsessed with monstrous creatures. Their professor didn’t care, nor did the other students, so Daston and Park carved out their own intellectual turf and wrote a landmark scholarly article about monsters. Years later they expanded the study and in 1998 published the monumental history, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750.

Nautilus called on Daston to learn how the unlikely in nature, strange and unexplainable occurrences, were viewed at the dawn of science. In conversation Daston has a dazzling ability to leap across centuries, ranging over high culture and low, from Aristotle to The National Enquirer. Her insights into history illuminate the practice of science today. Daston spoke to Nautilus from Berlin.

Centuries ago, monsters seemed to embody the unlikely in nature. Why were early philosophers and scientists so fascinated by monsters?

They were interested in exceptions to the rule. One has to keep in mind that the 16th and 17th centuries were times of extraordinary religious, economic, and intellectual upheaval. From both the Far East and the New World, Europe was deluged by novelties of all kinds, such as animals that no one could possibly imagine, like birds of paradise and armadillos. On the religious front, monsters were seen as portents foretelling the apocalypse—the Second Coming. It was also a time of intellectual revolution. Copernicus published his book on the solar system in 1543. That same year, Andreas Vesalius published his book on the anatomy of the human body.

For European thinkers in the early 17th century, the scientific ground on which they stood was extremely unstable. Everything was changing, and people like Francis Bacon realized it was possible that the best minds over the last two millennia had been dead wrong about everything. He used monsters and other marvels as a kind of intellectual hygiene to jolt people out of their assumptions about the natural world. In Aristotelian natural philosophy, monsters and other anomalies were seen as outliers, to be acknowledged but not explained. Bacon turned the tables and used monsters as a weapon against the ruling orthodoxy in natural philosophy and natural history.

Were monsters seen as frightening?

That was certainly one view. Birth deformations, like two-headed cats and conjoined twins, were terrifying but also electrifying. They seemed to be a telegram from God announcing the end of time, the end of the world. But in another context, they were seen as wonders—not as terrifying, but astonishing, a sign of the fecundity, the creativity and variety of nature. So the emotional response could flip over from one moment to the next, from horror to wonder and back again. In one early 17th century sermon in an English parish about the birth of conjoined twins, the minister harangued his parishioners not to treat this monstrous birth as a wonder to be gawked at and admired, but as a horrifying portent that they should repent immediately.

How did this struggle to explain unlikely occurrences relate to the birth of modern science?

These anomalies were seen as challenges. By the 17th century, it was pretty clear that Aristotelian natural philosophy was doomed. The question was what would replace it, and there were lots of fiercely competing theories. Monsters and other marvels offered extreme cases. Could your revision of natural philosophy explain such things? This made monsters and wonders more prominent in the late 16th and early 17th centuries than they’ve ever been before or since in the history of science. For the most part, science is interested in the regularities of nature—and that makes sense. Why would you devote time, thought, and ingenuity to explaining what only happens once in a blue moon? But in this period, anomalies very briefly took center stage when it came to scientific explanations…



Of money and morals


Resultado de imagem para ‘Scenes from the Life of St Matthew’ 1390-1399, by Niccolo' di Pietro Gerini, Church of San Francesco, Prato, Italy. St Matthew is the patron saint of bankers. Photo by Getty Images

‘Scenes from the Life of St Matthew’ 1390-1399, by Niccolo’ di Pietro Gerini, Church of San Francesco, Prato, Italy. St Matthew is the patron saint of bankers. Photo by Getty Images

Moneylending has been taboo for most of human history. So how did usury stop being a sin and become respectable finance?

by Alex Mayyasi is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and Priceonomics, among others. He co-authored the book You Are Under Arrest For Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution: A Memoir (2016) with Ahmed Salah. He lives in San Francisco.

‘A banker and a theologian’ sounds like the start of a bad joke. But for David Miller it’s merely a job description. After working in finance and business for 16 years, Miller turned to theology, and received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2003. Now he’s a professor of business ethics and the director of Princeton University’s Faith and Work Initiative, where his research focuses on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. ‘How to Succeed without Selling Your Soul’ is the students’ popular nickname for his signature course.

In 2014, Citigroup called. The bank had been battered by successive scandals and a wave of public mistrust after the financial crisis, so they wanted to hire Miller as an on-call ethicist. He agreed. Rather than admonish bankers to follow the law – an approach that Miller thinks is inadequate – he talks to them about philosophy. Surprisingly, he hasn’t found bankers and business leaders to be a tough crowd. Many confess a desire to do good. ‘Often I have lunch with an executive, and they say: “You do this God stuff?”’ Miller told me. ‘And then we spend next hour talking about ethics, purpose, meaning. So I know there’s interest.’ Miller wants people in finance to talk about ‘wisdom, whatever its source’. To ignore these traditions and thinkers, as the bulk of the industry tends to do, is equivalent to ‘putting on intellectual blinders’, he says.

Today, a banker listening to a theologian seems like a curiosity, a category error. But for most of history, this kind of dialogue was the norm. Hundreds of years ago, when modern finance arose in Europe, moneylenders moderated their behaviour in response to debates among the clergy about how to apply the Bible’s teachings to an increasingly complex economy. Lending money has long been regarded as a moral matter. So just when and how did most bankers stop seeing their work in moral terms?

In the early 1200s, the French cardinal Jacques de Vitry wrote a collection of exempla, morality tales that priests used in their sermons. In one story, a dying moneylender makes his wife and children swear to hang a third of their inheritance around his neck, and to bury him with it. His family does as instructed. However, later they decide to open the man’s grave to recover the money  – only to flee ‘in terror at seeing demons filling the dead man’s mouth with red hot coins’, de Vitry wrote.

In de Vitry’s world, the moneylender deserved to be defiled by demons, because he’d committed the sin of usury – charging interest on a loan. De Vitry didn’t care whether the rate was high or low, because the Church’s position was that extracting a single cent of interest was evil. The roots of this revulsion run deep, and across cultures. Vedic law in Ancient India condemned usury, and rulers routinely capped interest rates from Ancient Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece. In Politics, Aristotle described usury as ‘the birth of money from money’, and claimed it was unnatural because money was sterile and should not ‘breed’.

Judeo-Christian religions cemented the usury taboo. The Old Testament reads: ‘Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest,’ and the Book of Luke advises: ‘[L]ove ye your enemies: do good, and lend, hoping for nothing thereby.’ In the 4th century CE, Christian councils denounced the practice, and by 800, the emperor Charlemagne made the prohibition into law. Accounts of merchants and bankers in the Middle Ages frequently include expressions of anguish over their profits. In his Divine Comedy of the 14th century, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the usurers in the seventh circle of Hell; in the case of Reginaldo Scrovegni, one Paduan banker singled out by Dante, his son ended up commissioning a chapel painted with frescoes by Giotto to expiate the family’s sin. Over the ensuing centuries, the philanthropy and patronage of other Italian Renaissance families such as the Medicis was partly inspired by guilt about how they’d profited from charging interest…





by Ethan Indigo Smith, Contributor Waking Times

Fascism: “Any program for setting up a centralized autocratic national regime with severely nationalistic policies, exercising regimentation of industry, commerce, and finance, rigid censorship and forcible suppression of opposition.” ~ New Collegiate Dictionary, 1956.

With so many disastrous failures defining its history, the nuclear industry is little more than an experiment, conducted for the benefit of national regimes at the expense of free information, technological innovation, our health and environment, and all life on Earth. Despite the calls of its proponents, such nuclear experimentation and industrial institutionalization is a formation of fascism to the letter, and worse. It is comparable to no other that has ever been, and perhaps, to none that ever will be. It is biological oligarchical collectivism to the extreme, which threatens to turn out world into a netherworld dystopia.

Power and Defense

Nuclear experimentation is presented by the military industrial complex as a modality of self-defense and low-cost power generation. In actuality, however, nuclear experimentation provides the opposite.

Firstly, it removes the ability for all beings and nations to defend themselves. Although governments claim that the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction protects nuclear nations, in the case of all out war, it is an illusion to think that nuclear facilities (both power and military) are not going to be targets of war. They are military targets just waiting to happen, just as fossil power plants have been clear and effective targets in previous wars. The difference is, if a nuclear plant goes up in smoke, most everything and everyone in a hundred miles goes up with it. No-one wins a nuclear war, regardless who strikes first.

Further, it is impossible to “defend” oneself with weaponry so toxic and destructive that it permanently disrupts the very ground we ourselves walk on, poisoning the water we drink and the air we breathe. The industry is unable to properly manage nuclear waste or the contamination created by its nuclear power and weapons development programs (which are inherently entwined), other than to bury solid waste material in the ground, put up a warning sign and leave it for our children’s children to deal with — and that’s when the industry operates to plan. The National Academy of Sciences concluded over a decade ago that most of the sites on which the US government has built nuclear bombs will never be cleaned up enough to allow public access to the land.

Moreover, an analysis regarding the financial cost of nuclear energy shows that nuclear energy, touted as a “cheap” energy solution, is actually more expensive for consumers than other energy sources. U.S. states that use nuclear power to generate electricity pay an average 25 percent more for electricity than states that do not, because nuclear plants are more costly to build, operate and maintain than other forms of power, and are heavily dependent on taxpayer handouts to survive. Nuclear power experimentation is not only an unsustainable risk, it is also an unsustainable business model. Contrast this with nations like Denmark, which generates 140% of its electricity needs from clean wind power, and we see how unnecessary nuclear energy experimentation truly is.

With so many other genuinely-sustainable energy technologies in existence, and more being developed, the continuation of the nuclear experiment is an oligarchical madman’s dream — and a nightmare to the rest of us who are stuck with degraded and altered elements in our biosphere and our bodies.

Ultimately, nuclear experimentation continues to be about military armament and annihilation, just as it was when these programs were founded. As former-US government nuclear scientist Dr. Andreas Toupadakis explains in the article, “Cancer, Coverups and Contamination: The Real Cost of Nuclear Energy”:

“In the United States, it is the Department of Energy finances and manages the nation’s nuclear weapons programs. In reality the Department of Energy is basically the Department of Weapons. The nuclear weapons programs need nuclear materials to make the bombs. Who provides them? The Department of Energy does. The building of nuclear power plants in the U.S. began in 1943 to produce atomic bombs — it was not until 1957 that plants began to produce electricity, providing a continuous supply of plutonium to the nuclear weapons programs.” ~ Andreas Toupadakis, Ph.D

Now, only 72 years into a million year nuclear waste cycle, we are no closer to solving the problem of mounting nuclear waste and no closer to the promise (propaganda) of “too cheap to meter” power. What we are, however, is arming the military industrial complex with nuclear weaponry at an unprecedented rate, and moving ever-closer to the ultimate in oligarchical madness: nuclear war…


About the Author

Activist, author and Tai Chi teacher Ethan Indigo Smith was born on a farm in Maine and lived in Manhattan for a number of years before migrating west to Mendocino, California

This article (Nuclear Experimentation – Collectivism Over Common Sense) was originally created and published by Ethan Indigo Smith and is re-posted here with permission.