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/

Experimental and Speculative Hypotheses in the Seventeenth Century: Integrated History & Philosophy of Science Workshop, University of Durham (Part 1 of 2)

Last Thursday and Friday saw the 10th annual UK Integrated History and Philosophy of Science Workshop (IHPS) take place at the University of Durham. One solid attempt to combine the two fields was made by Catherine Wilson (Professor of Philosophy at the University of York) in her plenary talk, which addressed seventeenth-century notions of a “hypothesis,” with a focus upon the early life of the Royal Society.

Experimental and Speculative Revisited: What was Behind the Rejection of “Hypotheses”

Early modern England saw a series of methods applied to natural philosophy, which manifested themselves in observational and experimental reports, or more speculative natural philosophy. Texts from the Royal Society disparaged the former,  causing some historians to theorise that the empirical and rational debate in philosophy stemmed from this period. The problem with speculative philosophy, as seen by members of the Royal Society, was its association with Cartesianism and Epicurean philosophy. Distinctions between practical and speculative philosophy are very clear in seventeenth-century letters. Even theologian Richard Baxter weighed in on important of use in knowledge. Natural philosophy was a multi-sensual and instrumental enterprise, the complexity of which naturally led to group work in Italy, France and England.

Philosopher John Locke spoke on both distinctions, but without denigrating the speculative, as was also the case with Francis Bacon. Corpuscularianism (that matter is composed of minute particle) was popular among Royal Society members, encouraging both approaches. Robert Hooke’s observations in his Micrographia were combined with speculation on invisible mechanisms, which were not subject to experimentation. Hooke was actually keen to be seen as a philosopher, rather than a mere “mechanic.” The activities of leading Royal Society members contradicted the Society’s publications criticising speculation.

Hooke’s drawing of a flea viewed under his microscope, “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed.” See: https://scolarcardiff.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/life-through-a-lens-exploring-the-miniature-world-with-robert-hookes-micrographia/

Even critics of Cartesianism speculated on invisible forces. Descartes’s famous drawing of the magnet mechanisms was similar to the speculations of figures such as Newton, Hooke and Boyle. As medieval scholastics were displaced by the new natural philosophers, experimental philosophers required the corpuscular hypothesis to rise above the level of messy craftsmen and mechanics. But when speculation ran too far ahead of experiment, it was criticised as “Vain” or even “Pagan” philosophy, which neglected spiritual and providence to get at rudiments of nature. Bishop Stillingfleet’s 1663 work on the doctrine of the self-formation of world condemned Epicurean philosophy and those who deceived others with hypothesis based on tradition, not from “experiments of nature.”

Descartes: Striated particles (particulae striatae) pass veins inside the earth in two senses: http://www.journalfuerkunstsexundmathematik.ch/category/magnes/

Epicurean and Aristotelian philosophy became associated with dreaded “atheism.” Robert Moray even declared a ban on investigation into “original causes” by Royal Society members. Descartes’s claim that everything could be explained by laws of matter and motion was a worse sin. Natural philosophers were now expected to state that nature implied a benign god. Newton’s condemnation of atheism began with a criticism of Cartesian vortex theory: by refuting the mechanical base of the system, he could refute atheism. Newton’s own worldview required divine intervention, if only to stop the planets crashing into sun. Gravity was part of a divinely-fashioned order, not an intrinsic property of matter.

When Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, he faced a more hostile reaction in England than elsewhere. European and Scottish philosophers had addressed questions beyond the “veil of nature,” including original causes. In England, an old alliance of theology and naked-eye empiricism attacked the speculative aspect of Darwin’s theory, which linked contemporary breeding with natural history.

Book Review: Knowing Nature in Early Modern Europe

Before “science” in its modern sense existed, denizens of early modern Europe sought to explain their world through a system of knowledge termed “natural philosophy.” Natural philosophy covered a diverse array of subjects, from theology to pharmacology to natural history. The collection of chapters in Knowing Nature in Modern Europe seek to examine some of these disciplines, their methodologies and practices, while bringing together approaches from humanistic Renaissance studies and the history and philosophy of science. The book is divided into three sections, each containing three case studies by different authors. A few notable examples from the fields of physiology and natural history spheres are covered below:

The Moral Physiology of Laughter – Stephen Pender.


On the left, a medieval depiction of the four humors. On the right, Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I from 1514: http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/05/01/as-a-lute-out-of-tune-robert-burtons-melancholy/

Is laughter really good for you? According to some seventeenth-century writers, bouts of laughter were dangerous for body and soul. French physician Jean Fernel argued that, in cases of extreme merriment, death could result as “the Cordial Blood, and Vital Spirits, are… suddenly diffused to the exterior parts, that Life goeth out therewith, and returneth not.” Descartes tackled the physiological mechanisms behind laughter in The Passions of the Soul (1649), describing how a sudden rush of blood inflated the lungs to expel “an inarticulate and explosive cry.” Philosophy in his time was a “way of life,” with therapeutic applications for troubled minds. A key part of this lifestyle was rhetoric and conversation – or the art of knowing when laughter was appropriate. Moral aspects of laughter were therefore intertwined with its physiology.

The Use of Scripture in the Beast-Machine Controversy – Lloyd Strickland.

When Descartes carved up the universe between the corporeal and the spiritual in his Discourse on the Method (1637), animals became automatons, devoid of soul, or even mental activity. By the end of the eighteenth century, Descartes’s views on the beast-machine steadily lost popularity, in tandem with Cartesian philosophy. Strickland notes how actors in the controversy (including Descartes) readily claimed their philosophy acted in accordance with scripture. Supporters of animal automatism cited passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to declare that the blood, rather than a soul, drove animal action (which raised difficulties for animals with no blood). Ultimately, appeals to scripture from both sides were often corroboratory in nature, proving no more helpful in solving the controversy than empirical or rational arguments.

Early Modern Natural Science as an Agent for Change in Naturalist Painting: Jacopo Ligozzi’s Zoological Illustrations as a Case Study – Angelica Groom.


Ulisse Aldrovandi, watercolor of vol.002 Pets:


In a lavishly illustrated piece, a ten-year (1577-87) collaboration between naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi and naturalist painter Jacopo Ligozzi at the Medici court is depicted. Ligozzi was charged with visually recording the flora and fauna of the grand ducal collections. At the time, natural objects were “improved” by artists through the aesthetic conventions of Florentine mannerisms. Zoological and botanical images were then passed between illustrators for copying, facilitating the movement of visual information around Europe. Prints from the Medici collection appeared in Aldrovandi’s work, who exercised a great degree of control over the production of natural history images, ensuring aesthetic convention did not trump accurate observation. Yet artists’ access to courtly menageries proved instrumental in the development of greater mimeticism in zoological paintings.

Knowing Nature in Modern Europe provides a series of intriguing insights into how nature was studied and interpreted in early modern Europe.

David Beck, (ed.), Knowing Nature in Early Modern Europe (London, Pickering & Chatto, 2015) is available in hardback and as an ebook (£24 incl. VAT for PDF, £20 excl. VAT for EPUB) at:  http://www.pickeringchatto.com/titles/1806-9781848935181-knowing-nature-in-early-modern-europe