History & Philosophy of Monsters: HPS in 20 Objects Lecture Series, University of Leeds

On the 16th February, the ‘History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects’ lecture series held its second event, featuring monsters. PhD student Laura Sellers introduced a large audience to a member of the Museum of HPS’s wet specimen collection: a two-headed shark (spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias). The spiny dogfish is an intriguing animal in its own right. Possessing two spines, when attacked the dogfish is able to flex its back to allow one to protrude as a venomous spike. Yet it was the two heads of this specimen (the result of gene overexpression) under examination.

The two-headed fish (right) and a one-eyed piglet (left). The two heads of the fish are the result of gene overexpression. The one eye of the piglet results from gene underexpression.

Emeritus fellow Dr. Jon Hodge began his lecture with an important caveat. Historians of science have long sought to overcome a temptation to tell history as a story of the triumph of modernity over traditional ways of thinking. Yet a tension runs throughout the Western history of monsters, namely between nature as studied by science and nature as interpreted as the art of god by religious traditions.

So how has the emergence of monsters been explained throughout history? Aristotle (384-322BC) viewed all natural objects as a synthesis of form and matter. Form usually imposed itself upon matter, for example turning an acorn into an oak rather than a beech tree. Monsters occurred when matter deviated from form.

Nearly two millennia later, René Descartes (1596-1650) applied his mechanical view of nature – consisting of matter plus laws of motion – to life. Rare movements accounted for the development of monsters. Yet only a generation later, the mechanical view of nature was considered inadequate to explain life: contemporaries instead turned to the divine. A popular idea was the so-called “box-within-a-box” theory; the idea that god had created all forms of life at the first moment of creation, with later forms hidden within the first plants and animals.

The “box within a box” theory was illustrated with a comparison to nesting dolls. Image from http://legomenon.com/russian-matryoshka-nesting-dolls-meaning.html

In the early nineteenth century this theory was confronted by French morphologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffrey experimented with animal embryos – shaking, heating or prodding them – and observed the emergence of monstrous characteristics. External influences could apparently change animals from one generation to the next.

Subsequent years saw monsters fall in and out of scientific fashion. Charles Darwin did not discuss monsters as a means of variability (1809-1882). But from the 1880s-1920s biology took a laboratory turn and adopted saltationism. Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) devised the theory of “hopeful monsters”: or viable deviations with an evolutionary future. Yet Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), one of the founders of the modern synthesis, thought Goldschmidt harkened back to traditional, discredited views from Plato and Aristotle. Taking a difference stance (1941-2002) was Stephen Jay Gould, who championed Geoffroy. Monsters have lived on into what we think as of modern science.

Simply put, all this reveals that straightforward, traditional to modern narratives don’t hold up. History is complex and scepticism of simple stories is part and parcel of the historians’ trade.

A video of the full lecture can be accessed at https://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/20objects/object-2-two-headed-fish/

This and other posts by students reviewing the lecture can be found at: https://museumofhstm.wordpress.com/

Book Review: Anatomy & the Organisation of Knowledge, 1500-1850

Anatomy has had applications far beyond medicine. In 1699 Edward Tyson compared the anatomical structure of lions and cats, marvelling at the resemblance of their parts. Based on the observations of natural historians, Tyson remarked that humans and chimpanzees similarly resemble each other. Although Tyson did not develop a theory of common ancestry, dissection and anatomy has yielded insights into natural and social worlds throughout history. Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 compiles a series of case studies, from contributors across the humanities. With some thirteen pieces contained in three sections, a very select few are reviewed below:

Earth’s Intelligent Body: Subterranean Systems and the Circulation of Knowledge, or, The Radius Subtending Circumnavigation – Kevin L. Cope


Joseph Wright, “Vesuvius from Portici,” ca. 1774-1776. The Huntington Library: http://emuseum.huntington.org/view/objects/asitem/1046/159/title-asc

An eighteenth-century country parson, Thomas Robinson was fond of ale, sporting events and collecting minerals. His first book The Anatomy of the Earth was replete with anatomical analogy. Just as the skin of animals held lice, so the “Skin” or “Outer Coat” of the Earth produced grass, trees, vegetables, birds and beasts. Under the surface lay “the Bones, that is, Stones, Metals and Minerals.”  In an attempt to envision divine order in a seemingly random world, Robinson turned to anatomy. Inequalities and differences in nature became part of a complex system of circulation. Volcanoes, underground streams and similar processes represented the bodily systems of the earth, which could become blocked or rupture to create floods or earthquakes. Robinson’s geological anatomy provided a natural explanation as to why disasters did not only strike the sinful.

Visualizing the Fibre-Woven Body: Nehemiah Grew’s Plant Anatomy and the Emergence of the Fibre Body – Hisao Ishizuka

Staying in the eighteenth century, medical men mused over the fundamental building block (minima naturalia) of the body. One popular viewpoint for Enlightenment physiologists and anatomists was the fibre theory. Textile and weaving metaphors for bodily tissues followed in the wake of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665). Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants (1682) furthered the fibre theorist’s cause, postulating that plants were composed of fibres and leant authority by numerous illustrations. An advantage of Grew’s observations to natural philosophers was the suggestion of a designer through textile metaphors, allowing the latter to dodge charges of atheism or political radicalism. Even as investigations into the brain and nerves appeared in the late-eighteenth century, almost all physicians subscribed to the idea of a fibre-based body, woven with innumerable threads.

Visualizing Monsters: Anatomy as a Regulatory System – Touba Ghadessi

L0021649 A. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica L0011136 Vesalius "De humani...", 1543; figure

Plates from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543): http://wellcomeimages.org/

Early modern European culture held a fascination with monsters. Physical deformities were viewed as both theological omens and curiosities of nature. Anatomists adopted the normative body displayed in Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543), visual comparison highlighting the abnormal. Medical accounts structured public and expert accounts of monstrosities, which maintained their appeal as “pathological” specimens into the nineteenth century. In fact, Ghadessi asserts that it was this scientific inquiry into the abnormal which allowed a court culture obsessed with the deviant to flourish, without its participants appearing deviant themselves. Monstrous subjects, combined with anatomical knowledge, provided an alternative manner of understanding human bodies, while confronting ideas of cultural conformity.

Anatomy and the Organization of Knowledge, 1500-1850 is not for the reader wanting a general overview of anatomical practice in medicine. Instead, the social impact of anatomy is discussed through literature, language and analogy. The intellectual and cultural place of anatomy in the early modern and modern world is re-imagined in a series of intriguing studies.

Matthew Landers & Brian Muñoz (eds.), Anatomy and the Organisation of Knowledge, 1500-1850 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at: www.pickeringchatto.com/anatomy 

643 BGC9 Anatomy_Cover