Monsters of Science

ScienceOfMonstersMaybe it’s the ebola in the air, or perhaps the gas from all the midterm elections verbiage, but I’ve been on a monster run this October. I just finished Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear. It is a charmingly written book, at parts approaching the finesse of Mary Roach. Beginning with the ancient Greeks (and sometimes stepping back into the world of the Bible or the Mesopotamians) Kaplan examines the major categories of monsters and tries to offer scientific explanations for why people came up with them. It is a keen conceit and it is deftly handled. Noting that animals sometimes got jumbled in the fossilization process, he offers explanations for creatures such as the Chimera, Griffon, and perhaps even the Sphinx. Some of the unlikely episodes are quite fun to visualize as well, as when a snake slithers over a tar pit where a goat got stuck and was eaten by a lion that also got stuck. Beast after hideous beast he brings down to analytical size, sometimes convincing even this old monster lover.

One of the problems, however, is that science often doesn’t comprehend the symbolic nature of mythical thought. Quite apart from sheer creativity—and it does exist!—some of the material in Kaplan’s analysis would have benefited from having a mythographer’s look. For example, demons do not suddenly appear as monsters in the Middle Ages. Kaplan knows this, but that’s where he starts. The ancient Mesopotamians knew of them very, perhaps, too, well. And Lilith isn’t even mentioned when discussing succubi. Still, there’s a great deal of interesting conjecture here, and some scientifically, if not mythographically, viable suggestions on whence vampires and werewolves. As expected, modern sightings of cryptids are simply swept off the table, but I almost shouted aloud when I read that he gave credence to Wade Davis’s work on Haitian zombies.

The larger question here is one of approach. Do monsters lend themselves to scientific explanations at all? The case that elephant/mammoth skulls might suggest a cyclops seems reasonable enough, and the occasional dinosaur bone that represented a giant in ancient times is entirely possible. (Who can tell one femur from another anyway?) But the monster is primarily a creature inhabiting the shadowy realms of religion and psychology. Our fears are seldom directed toward science, although, now that I’ve read his chapter on “The Created” I’m not so sure. Constructing backward toward the unknown is always a dicey proposition, as those of us who’ve studied history of religions know. We may be able to find the genesis of modern monsters, but, admittedly, the fun for most of our scary friends is that they are mysterious. Impervious, as it were, even to science.

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