Monsters, miracles and the birth of science

How unlikely and inexplicable, strange and frightening contributed to the advent of science


The search for patterns in nature is what science lives. We know that reptiles lay eggs, and mammals are viviparous; The earth wraps around the sun every 365.25 days; electrons cling to protons, like bears for honey. But what if, at first glance, some strangeness violates the laws of nature, for example, the platypus is a mammal laying eggs? What about two headed snakes? Or a newborn baby, which is not a boy or a girl, but something in between?

These questions occupied the founders of science, and their attempts to explain these rarities and wonders helped to create modern science. Practically all the greatest philosophers and scientists of Europe in the seventeenth century — among them Descartes, Newton, Bacon — were passionate about anomalies. If they could not explain an unlikely event - a solar eclipse, a comet flying toward Earth, a narwhal tusk (maybe it was a unicorn?) - then this changed the whole explanation of the laws of nature.

Lorain Duston, Executive Director of the Institute of the History of Science. Max Planck in Berlin for decades studied the emergence of modern science. She says that the impetus for this was given to her by one experience gained at a postgraduate seminar where they and her classmate Katharina Park noticed something strange. The philosophers they studied, engaged in metaphysics in the 17th century — Bacon, Hobbs, Leibniz, Lok — had a passion for monsters. Their teacher did not pay attention to this, like the other students, so Daston and Park themselves made their way and wrote a landmark article about monsters. Many years later, they expanded this study, and in 1998 published a monumental history, “Miracles and order in nature, from 1150 to 1750”.

We contacted Duston to find out how, at the dawn of science, people treated unlikely cases, strange and unexplained phenomena. During the conversation, Daston demonstrated a discouraging opportunity to jump here and there through the centuries, to move from high culture to low culture, from Aristotle to the tabloid The National Enquirer . Her historical discoveries shed light on how science is done today. Duston talked to us from Berlin.

Centuries ago, monsters seemed to embody the unlikely phenomena of nature. Why were early philosophers and scientists so interested in monsters?

They were interested in exceptions. It should be understood that the XVI and XVII centuries were a time of an extraordinary rise in religion, economy and intelligence. From the Far East and from the New World to Europe, all sorts of novelties, for example, unimaginable living creatures such as birds of paradise and armadillos, flowed. On the religious front, monsters were considered as forerunners of the apocalypse - the Second Coming. It was also the time of the intellectual revolution. Copernicus published his book on the solar system in 1543. In the same year, Andreas Vesalius published his book on the anatomy of the human body.

European thinkers of the 17th century felt that the scientific basis of their thinking is extremely shaky. Everything changed, and people like Francis Bacon realized that the best minds of the last two thousand years may be wrong in almost all areas. He used monsters and other wonders as intellectual hygiene to push people out of their assumptions about the natural world. In the natural philosophy of Aristotle, the monsters and other anomalies were isolated, their existence was recognized, but not explained. Bacon changed the rules of the game and used the monsters as a weapon against orthodoxy in natural philosophy and natural science.

Were the monsters scary?

One of the points of view was and such. Deformations during childbirth, such as two-headed cats or Siamese twins, were frightening, but at the same time exciting. They seemed to be a telegram from God announcing the end of time, the end of the world. But in a different context, they were viewed as miracles — not as something frightening, but as something amazing, a sign of fertility, creativity, and the diversity of nature. So emotional reactions could change from time to time, from horror to surprise and back. In one of the seventeenth-century sermons in the English parish, the priest who spoke of Siamese twins appealed to his parishioners not to view this monstrous birth as a miracle, which should be watched, but as a sign of the need for urgent repentance.

How are these attempts to find an explanation for unlikely cases related to the birth of modern science?

These anomalies looked like challenges. By the 17th century, it became clear that Aristotelian natural philosophy was doomed. The question was what could replace it — and as a result, there were many competing theories. Monsters and other wonders represented extreme cases. Can your version of natural philosophy explain such things? As a result, monsters and wonders at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries were more debated than ever before or after in the history of science. For the most part, science is interested in the laws of nature - and this makes sense. Why waste time and effort explaining what happens after the rain on Thursday? But at that time, the anomalies briefly occupied a central position in scientific explanations.

What about the founders of modern science - Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz? What weirdo they were into?

Descartes believed that if you put forward a new theory of everything, you should be able to explain extreme cases. He even believed that you should be able to explain even medieval wonders when the murdered corpse bled out again in the presence of a murderer or murder weapon. Leibniz made a report on a talking dog for the journal of the Paris Royal Academy of Sciences. She could bark six words in French, including "chocolat." In the XVII century, all engaged in forbidden miracles.

You have described the transitional period between the preceding modern and modern science as “the great epoch of miracles.” What miracles scientists have found?

Take astronomy. In 1609, Galileo turned his telescope to heaven. He discovered that the surface of the moon is cracked. He discovered the four moons of Jupiter, describing them as a “miracle.” He discovered the phases of Venus. He published these discoveries in 1610, and this caused a sensation. His book was sold like hot cakes. And amazing news came from the New World, from China and the Far East, and flowed to the markets of London and Amsterdam.

That is, in part, this was the result of the emergence of world trade.

Many miracles could be considered as goods. The ancestors of modern museums - " cabinets of rarities ", wunderkammern - were filled with all sorts of wonders and monsters. Some of these items would not have seemed like miracles to us - for example, paper money from China. But from the point of view of a European at the end of the 16th century, the concept of turning paper money instead of gold or silver was almost as much a miracle as an ironclad.

Wunderkammern is usually translated as “cabinets of rarities”, but will not the translation “cabinet of miracles” be more accurate?

The literal translation is “room of miracles”.

Are miracles and rarities the same thing?

Not. That time was different because then these two concepts were combined. Aristotle said that a miracle is the beginning of philosophy, but the purpose of his natural philosophy was to make miracles disappear as quickly as possible. It was at best a sign of ignorance, and at worst - timidity or fear. Since ancient times, curiosity has been associated with vices, and not virtues, with people who have climbed into their own business. You were interested in things that shouldn't have bothered you - the secrets of nature, or god, or ruler.


Of course, the classic story warning of the dangers of curiosity is the story of Adam and Eve, who tried the fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. It was the original sin.

Exactly. And what happens in the XVI-XVII centuries, is amazing. Curiosity turns from vice into virtue. She becomes a kind of courage. “I dare to know” becomes the motto that natural philosophers arrogate to themselves with pride, and miracles are transformed from a sign of ignorance into a desire for knowledge. This is best described in Descartes’s treatise of 1649, The Passion of the Soul . At first there is a surprise, then curiosity, then they work in a bundle. Surprise is like a spark igniting the fuse of curiosity. Curiosity drives the intellect and all the senses in search of the cause of the miracle.

Tell me about these wunderkammern cabinets of rarities. What did people collect?

And what they did not collect? To meet the requirements of the wunderkammern, the object had to be unusual. It could just be exotic things - paper money of China, pointy shoes from Turkey. Amazing mistakes of nature, like two-headed snakes. Or it could be the wonders of the masterly work of a master - a thousand faces carved on the shell. They exhibited underlined chaotically to pay attention to their diversity, their mixture and abundance. You may have seen images of such floor-to-ceiling windows in which there is everything, from Ceylon teas to a stuffed Laplander and a crocodile hanging from the ceiling. The goal of the wunderkammern, especially the royal collection, is to hit you. Often they were shown to ambassadors in order to impress them with the might of a ruler. Today’s museums have a lot in common with these early wunderkammern. They want to amaze us, to wrest from everyday thoughts: “It was great to see this!” And they are trying to arouse our curiosity, curiosity about the new class of objects. It is possible that today this alliance of surprise and curiosity is preserved only in museums.

And yet, from a modern point of view, this mixture of human-made objects and natural wonders seems strange. Today the difference between nature and art is obvious.

In the XIV and XV centuries, it was also obvious. Therefore, it is very interesting to observe what happens in the period of early modernity. Monsters and other wonders were used as catalysts for new theories of knowledge. In the words of Bacon. These wonders are experiments that nature conducts on itself. And if we need to create a new way of steel hardening or fabric dyeing, we need to look at the experiments conducted by nature on the verge of the ordinary. And then imitate nature.

Was nature considered a god's artwork?

More pious people could articulate this. And philosophers of the XVI-XVII centuries allowed nature to joke. What we would call fossil - the imprint of a fern in a stone - at the beginning of the seventeenth century could be regarded as a joke of nature. "What the heck! I am tired of creating sheets for trees and plants. I'll try in stone. ” But God was not allowed to joke. So nature had the freedom to experiment, and it was for this that natural philosophers needed it. To assume that God was experimenting meant to approach blasphemy.

Today we divide into categories and collect objects of nature and art in a completely different way. Paintings and sculptures go to art museums, shells and stuffed animals - to museums of natural history. Such divisions in the offices of rarities did not.

It was all a delicious mix. One can definitely mark the end of the era of miracles at the moment when the division of labor between art museums and natural history museums began in the middle and end of the XVIII century.

Why is the miracle out of fashion?

From the point of view of scientists, if you look at the annals of the first scientific communities - the Royal Society of London and the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris - the first 30 years are filled with reports about wonders and monsters. They are read like the magazine “Believe, Believe, Want - No” from Ripley or as the tabloid The National Enquirer. Sometimes it seems to me that The National Enquirer reporters take their ideas from early science journals. Bacon believed that we needed to study the anomalies in order to reveal the secrets of nature.

By 1730-1740, scientists were tired of the anomalies and felt that it was time to return to the main work of science - the explanation of the laws. In addition, these anomalies were objects of close attention of the church. It was the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation , and new sects grew like mushrooms after rain. Leaders of sects often used miracles as evidence that God is on their side.

You used the term “natural philosophy” to describe the work of early thinkers. Can we say that this is another name for science?

I do not just try to be a pedantic historian. I do not want to equate natural philosophy with what we know as modern science. The Institute of Science appeared later, in the 19th century, therefore it was rare for anyone to earn money by practicing science. Natural philosophers also asked broader questions than scientists. Newton believed that it is perfectly permissible to argue about the relationship of gravity and the nature of God. For a modern scientist, this would be unacceptable. So natural philosophy is the ancestor of modern science, but not the same thing.

We talked about miracles and unusual phenomena. Miracle is treated with awe. Does miracles have a story?

There is. In the modern world, we associate a miracle with a childish stance, with a new look. But in the Middle Ages and at the beginning of modernity there was nothing childish about this. A miracle could easily turn into horror or fear. There is a peculiar Bermuda triangle of fear, horror and surprise, with deep ties to each other. They all include the feeling that something unusual has happened. And they hesitate. They can easily turn from one to another.

Miracles have a taste of awe - because of this they can be attributed to the realm of the supernatural, perhaps even divine - as well as the taste of fear. This is an unpleasant emotion. You do not own surprise before a miracle, but it seizes you. It grabs you by the lapels and shakes. Surprise is associated with fear, and the learned man looks shamefully frightened. Miracles for the ignorant, illiterate people. You, a university professor of natural philosophy, want to show that you are not afraid of an eclipse, because you can explain it and even predict it.

That is, it is actually a question of what can be explained, and this is the essence of science.

And it is very interesting to see what happens in the middle of the XVIII century, when natural philosophers begin to refuse miracles and return to the laws. They translate the miracle from the category of the surprising and inexplicable into the area of ​​what they can explain. There is a concerted attempt to translate the miracle from newborn freaks to ordinary, sometimes even unpleasant objects, such as insects. There is a whole field of natural history involving insect wonders — an attempt to tame the emotion of wonder for what we can explain.

It is extremely difficult to understand the mindset of people who lived 300 years ago, to overcome the tendency to use our own inclinations towards the past. It would be too easy to write them off as ignorant or uneducated. Is it in your job to convince people that they were different, not worse than us?

Well said. The whole point of working with the history of science of the early modern period is to explain that all these extremely clever and often brave people who tried their best, without any institute laboratories and university support, understand how the world works - and all this for at the expense of their funds, often at the expense of their health, and sometimes - and their lives.

The revolution in science is amazing. But some believe that we, in our age of rationality and science, have lost something. They say that the world has "lost the spell", that we have lost the ability to marvel at the miracle. Do you think this is a problem?

Not. It is difficult to apply such sullen and elegiac arguments about the loss of magic, which had popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, to any working scientist who was burning with enthusiasm, enthusiasm and surprise at his work. Why do these people voluntarily plow 80 days a week?

In the epilogue of the book “Wonders and order in nature,” you quote William James , the great philosopher and psychologist who lived a hundred years ago. He believed that science would renew, as he called it, the “dust cloud of exceptional observations.” He was also interested in spiritualism. He and a small company of scientists engaged in the study of seances, to which the majority of scientists regarded with contempt. Was James right?

Definitely. He wrote about "radical empiricism." This was the interest in miracles. It was a desire not to exclude anything from the field of view and research — not to narrow the horizon for reasons of rationality or orthodoxy, but to accept the world as it appears to us.

I think that any science includes susceptibility to anomalies, perhaps not as miracles, but simply as to what the view clings to: "Oh, this is strange, this has not happened before." Known history of the discovery of penicillin. Other people, no doubt, even before Alexander Fleming saw how the mold grows in Petri dishes, but he was susceptible to the strangeness of this phenomenon, to its unusualness, and studied it. And this story is repeated time after time. This is an openness to small deviations from the norm during observations, and a desire to explore them to the end.

Now scientific susceptibility is aimed at such objects that most of us do not seem surprising as a two-headed snake would seem. As if scientists became experts in wonders, like gourmets with a refined taste, looking for exotic combinations of tastes. A man without refined taste would be amazed by the relatively simple dish. Scientists are looking for more unusual and exotic combinations.


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