Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth 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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus8 min read
Can New Species Evolve From Cancers? Maybe.
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. Aggressive cancers can spread so fiercely that they seem less like tissues gone wrong and more like invasive parasites looking to consume and then break free of their host. If a wild
Nautilus6 min read
Butterfly Wonk Robert Pyle Pens His First Novel 44 Years in the Making
Last year marked a first for 71-year old Robert Michael Pyle, the acclaimed author, naturalist, and ecologist: the publication of his long-awaited first novel, Magdalena Mountain, nearly half a century in the making. Pyle has been investigating the b
Nautilus15 min read
How American Tycoons Created the Dinosaur: The story of dinosaurs is also the story of capitalism.
The dinosaur is a chimera. Some parts of this complex assemblage are the result of biological evolution. But others are products of human ingenuity, constructed by artists, scientists, and technicians in a laborious process that stretches from the di