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