A History of Monsters

October 31, 2018

Robots are amoral brutes that demonstrate where real monstrosity lies: in their psychopathic creator.

Monsters once inhabited the mysterious fringes of the known world. In our human-dominated present, can they still be found?

In 2003, a team of scientists in China managed to create embryos containing a mix of rabbit and human DNA. Most of the biological matter was human, while the rabbit DNA was present only in the mitochondria, the energy-generators of the cells. The aim was to try to find new ways of growing and harvesting the stem cells present in early human development, which were (and are) a promising avenue for medical study and treatment.

It wasn’t long, however, before controversy erupted over these so-called ‘chimeras’, as they were dubbed by some researchers. Were they human? What would happen if they were allowed to develop? Soon activists mobilised to restrict or quash the research. In 2005, the US outlawed patents on human embryos; in 2007, the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act was proposed in Congress (although ultimately it failed to pass into law). According to the bill, research into hybrids was said to compromise ‘human dignity and the integrity of the human species’. Pig heart transplants or the administration of animal-based insulin were acceptable, but the threat of potentially viable, cellular hybrids was too strong, despite the myriad social benefits it could yield.

These cells were very different in appearance to their mythological namesake, the chimeras of Greek mythology that possessed a lion’s head and body, a second goat’s head, and a serpent’s tail. Yet the rabbit-human embryos and the Ancient Greek image shared a deep similarity in the public imagination: they were both monsters.

The meaning of monstrosity has morphed dramatically over the course of history. Traditionally, monsters came from elsewhere: at the unknown edges of maps, from distant times and places. But as the bounds of the known Universe have expanded, the habitats of monsters shrunk back. The world is now so thoroughly charted that there seems to be little space left for indigenous monsters; instead, we import extraterrestrials and summon up artificial intelligence or cutting-edge technologies to act as the fearsome ‘Others’ for our books, TV series and films.

But monsters are restless things. Not only have they moved outward; they have also burrowed into our viscera, into our cells, into those ambivalent spaces within the human frame. Since the 19th century, humanity has been consciously developing techniques that can reshape the world in wonderful, dramatic, but often terrifying ways. We have created agricultural systems for taming nature, tools to tinker with the genetic building blocks of life, and machines that might soon be simulacra of ourselves.

At the same time, transport and communication networks now connect the globe so completely that pandemics such as Zika and Ebola seem a bigger threat than ever. The modern age has also brought with it the deep isolation of individuals, apparently untethered to place, connecting through screens but divorced from nature. These changes have given rise to a new breed of monsters – ones that originate from the dystopian realities within the human mind.

The word ‘monster’ derives from the Latin monstrare (to demonstrate) or monere (to warn). Yet defining monsters is difficult. They are a rambunctious lot, less identifiable by what they are than by what they do. According to the American art historian Asa Mittman: ‘Monsters do a great deal of cultural work, but they do not do it nicely.’ They seem to be terrifying and persecutory things that exist on the very edge of the familiar: unsightly creatures in distant lairs, vampires lurking in the dark. ‘They not only challenge and question; they trouble, they worry, they haunt,’ Mittman writes. ‘They break and tear and rend cultures, all the while constructing them and propping them up.’

In the early modern period, monsters were prodigious signs from God: two-headed calves, deformed babies or strange races of humanoids living very far away. Then, from the late-15th century, Europeans began exploring the Far East, northwards to the Arctic and west to the New World, bringing back reports and specimens of extraordinary flora and fauna. Exotic creatures and plants began pouring into Europe. Traditional, aberrant monsters still persisted, but eventually they were superseded by a new kind: organic forms apparently produced by the playful hand of Nature, rather than omens presaging divine wrath.

The novel beasts encountered by European explorers often failed to fit into their traditional ways of organising the natural world. Aristotle had grouped animals into viviparous quadrupeds (four-legged mammals), oviparous quadrupeds (four-legged egg-layers), birds, whales, and fishes. But many new creatures and plants seemed to be inscrutable hybrids defying taxonomy: the armadillo, for example, arriving from South America, was thought to be a reptile-hedgehog, a Post-Fall miscegenation, resulting from a tryst between a tortoise and a hedgehog cooped up on Noah’s Ark.

As the boundaries of the ecumene, or known world, expanded, Europeans became convinced that they had uncovered the monstrous races described by certain classical authors. Explorers such as Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed on Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe between 1519-22, wrote accounts of the alien peoples, habitats and cultures that they encountered, such as the 10-ft giants that Magellan’s crew supposedly met in Patagonia.

Natural historians extrapolated from sailors’ glimpses to write about terrible sea beasts such as the Kraken

How far travellers believed what they described, and how much was deliberate fabrication, we don’t know. What’s certain is that audiences in Europe lapped up these stories, where there was a flourishing market for depictions of the exotic and monstrous. Often, new creatures were not seen alive – or even whole – by people in Europe. They had to be assembled from references in existing texts, token body parts and sailors’ reports, who were notoriously prone to exaggeration. Travel was difficult, shipboard conditions were rough, and anything vaguely tasty or easily decomposed tended not to make it back.

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