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“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe” – Ray Bradbury

What's so unnatural?

What’s so unnatural?

In the examination of those pesky hypothetical and anomalistic critters we collectively refer to as monsters, the terms unnatural, supernatural (first used in the 15th Century A.D.), preternatural (mid-13th century A.D.), and paranormal (early 20th Century A.D.) are often used interchangeably as shorthand for “weird” or “foreign to my daily experience”.  Each of these terms, does of course have a technical meaning.  Unnatural and preternatural both imply that something is contrary to nature.  Supernatural refers to an occurrence beyond the laws of nature.  Paranormal has the specific connotation of being beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.  The differences are no doubt subtle, but all involve the notion that a thing or event is in direct contradiction to or outside the bounds of our understanding of the natural universe. The presumption is that we understand the bounds of nature, as it would have to be in order to identify something as categorically beyond those bounds.  The seeming arbitrariness and confining effects of our desire to categorize into “nature” and “not nature” has been giving anomalists migraines for millennia, and when we stumbled upon empirical methods, we assumed we had found the cure rather than simple relief from the symptoms, and brazenly began applying them in a vain attempt to explain the unexplainable, only to run up against the limitations of our preconceived margins, a hall of mirrors so eloquently expressed by Charles Fort when he described a bit of kitchen madness: “I had used all except peach labels. I pasted the peach labels on peach cans, and then came to apricots. Well, aren’t apricots peaches? And there are plums that are virtually apricots. I went on, either mischievously, or scientifically, pasting the peach labels on cans of plums, cherries, string beans, and succotash. I can’t quite define my motive, because to this day it has not been decided whether I am a humorist or a scientist. I think that it was mischief, but, as we go along, there will come a more respectful recognition that also it was scientific procedure.”  Curiously there have been a number of theologians, compilers of bestiaries, and philosophers who rejected the notion that anything in nature (specifically concerning themselves with monsters) could indeed be considered “unnatural”, since that would seem to be tautological from the standpoint of strict Boolean logic i.e. the unnatural by occurring naturally, must be natural – a statement true for all its variables.  This led to a number of fine, meditative fellows performing intellectual gymnastics to assure themselves and others that monsters were a natural phenomenon, assuming they had the gall to exist at all.

Superstar Christian theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), later to become Saint Augustine, had a profound effect on the development of Medieval Christianity, if not the entire Medieval worldview, but was heavily influenced by Gnostic Manichaeism (from which he conveniently converted to Christianity in 378 A.D., right after Roman Emperor Theodosius I declared Manichaeism punishable by death), and which had as one of its central features a dualistic cosmology, that allowed for the concurrent and natural existence of both good and evil.  Augustine was thought to have been similarly swayed by the neo-Platonic ideas of the Greek philosopher Plotinus (204-207 A.D.), particularly the transcendent “Oneness” that governed the universe, beyond all categories of being and non-being.  Augustine spent a lot of time thinking about monsters, clearly a man after my own heart, and came to the eminently reasonable conclusion that monsters either (1) did not exist, or (2) if they did exist, they were perfectly natural, as any other presumption implied that the Big Guy was not infallible.  He suggested that because we see “monstrous” births among humans, there is no reason to suppose that entire races of monstrous men do not also exist, and if such a thing is possible, than non-anthropoid monstrosities were equally plausible, and more importantly, natural.

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth: others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies:” they say that in some places the women conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth. So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvellous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee: they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet. Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbour esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities. What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men? But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in colour, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful. The same account which is given of monstrous births in individual cases can be given of monstrous races. For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But He who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs. We know that men are born with more than four fingers on their hands or toes on their feet: this is a smaller matter; but far from us be the folly of supposing that the Creator mistook the number of a man’s fingers, though we cannot account for the difference. And so in cases where the divergence from the rule is greater. He whose works no man justly finds fault with, knows what He has done.  At Hippo-Diarrhytus there is a man whose hands are crescent-shaped, and have only two fingers each, and his feet similarly formed. If there were a race like him, it would be added to the history of the curious and wonderful. Shall we therefore deny that this man is descended from that one man who was first created ? As for the Androgyni, or Hermaphrodites, as they are called, though they are rare, yet from time to time there appear persons of sex so doubtful, that it remains uncertain from which sex they take their name ; though it is customary to give them a masculine name, as the more worthy. For no one ever called them Hermaphroditesses. Some years ago, quite within my own memory, a man was born in the East, double in his upper, but single in his lower half—having two heads, two chests, four hands, but one body and two feet like an ordinary man; and he lived so long that many had an opportunity of seeing him. But who could enumerate all the human births that have differed widely from their ascertained parents? As, therefore, no one will deny that these are all descended from that one man, so all the races which are reported to have diverged in bodily appearance from the usual course which nature generally or almost universally preserves, if they are embraced in that definition of man as rational and mortal animals, unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all. We are supposing these stories about various races who differ from one another and from us to be true; but possibly they are not: for if we were not aware that apes, and monkeys, and sphinxes are not men, but beasts, those historians would possibly describe them as races of men, and flaunt with impunity their false and vainglorious discoveries. But supposing they are men of whom these marvels are recorded, what if God has seen fit to create some races in this way that we might not suppose that the monstrous births which appear among ourselves are the failures of that Wisdom whereby He fashions the human nature, as we speak of the failure of a less perfect workman? Accordingly, it ought not to seem absurd to us, that as in individual races there are monstrous births, so in the whole race there are monstrous races. “Wherefore, to conclude this question cautiously and guardedly, either these things which have been told of some races have no existence at all; or if they do exist, they are not human races; or if they are human, they are descended from Adam. (St. Augustine, Civitas Dei. Book 16, Chapter 8).

Bad Boy of Bestiaries, Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.) reached back to the original etymology of the word “monster”, derived from the Latin monstrum (an aberrant occurrence or sign that something was wrong with the natural order), actually rooted in the word monere (“to warn”), and hypothesized that all monsters were meant to be a warnings from God to us thick-skulled humans, and thus rejects the notion that any aberration, even those of a monstrous or phenomenal sort, are not part of the natural world or contrary to its normal function.  It’s not often when one can take perverse pleasure in pointing out how medieval Christian saints were busy being incredibly reasonable and open-minded in contrast to the self-assured skeptics of modernity.

Portents, Varro says, are those births which seem to have taken place contrary to nature. But they are not contrary to nature, because they come by the divine will, since the will of the creator is the nature of each thing that is created. Whence, too, the heathen themselves call God now nature, now God. A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to known nature.  Certain creations of portents seem to have been made with future meanings. For God sometimes wishes to indicate what is to come by disgusting features at birth, as also by dreams and oracles, that he may give forewarning by these, and indicate to certain nations or certain men coming destruction. This has been proved by many trials.  But these portents which are sent in warning, do not live long, but die as soon as they are born. And just as there are monstrous individuals in separate races of men, so in the whole human kind there are certain monstrous races, as the Gigantes, Cynocephali, Cyclopes, and the rest (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 11, iii.1-12)

Here in the 21st Century, as we begin to monkey with genetics in earnest, the idea that we are somehow moving outside the bounds of the natural in our attempts to build better biological mousetraps seems to have again reared its head, fears encapsulated in our anxiety about “playing god” or blurring the lines between man and monster.  We are approaching an era where we can create in a lab what would have once appeared in a medieval bestiary (I vote for “bacon-fruit”), and have consequently begun rekindling arguments about natural vs. unnatural life.

The idea that there is a simple and obvious distinction between different species is deeply rooted in our culture. Yet modern biotechnology, with its ability to create chimeras (mixing embryonic cells from different species) and genetic hybrids (incorporating genetic material from different species into a particular genome), makes the self-evidence of this distinction problematic. Scientists can now manipulate the genetic information that plays a part in the developmental process of all life forms. Using sophisticated recombinant-DNA and cell-fusion processes, genetic information from unrelated species can be inserted, deleted or even stitched and fused together, creating forms of life that have never before existed. This has provoked deep anxiety among many people, an anxiety that has been variously described as a rejection of the ‘unnatural’ or a fear of the ‘alien’ or the ‘dangerous’. On the other hand, from ancient times, our culture has been fascinated by creatures that combine varied features from different animals, or animals mixed with humans, such as griffins and centaurs. Such hybrids, or monstrous creatures, challenge our usual sense of categorization and provide us with the stimulus for thinking about the truly fundamental aspects of both biological and physical human nature (Caccavale & Reiss, 2008, p48).

The strange things of this world are generally shuffled off into a limbo of impossibility, an unnatural realm of natural things that make us uncomfortable, but confronting the uncomfortable is the bread and butter of anomalistics, for as author Arnold Glasgow suggested, “Progress is what happens when impossibility yields to necessity”.  Plus, it’s not nice to discriminate against monsters just for the mere fact of being monstrous. Not like most of us are all that pretty ourselves.

Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. The City of God. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1888.
Brehaut, Ernest, 1873-. An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville. New York: Columbia University, 1912.
Caccavale, Elio & Reiss, Michael.  “Miracles, Monsters, and Disturbances”. Creative Encounters: New Conversations in Science, Education and the Arts, Levinson, R., Nicholson, H. & Parry, S. (Eds), Wellcome Trust, London, pp. 48-63, 2008.