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Science: An unhealthy obsession with monsters …

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… gave rise to it?

At Nautilus,, Steve Paulson interviews Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in 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.

Actually, the interest in monsters makes sense in the context of information theory.

Information is, among other things, a ruling out of possibilities. If we haven’t ruled out possibilities, we haven’t created information. If we have been told that we are governed by the “army of unalterable law” and it turns out that there are normal, routine exceptions to them (egg-laying mammals and now, placental reptiles), then we know that those were not really unalterable laws; something else is at work that better explains what we see.

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