Stephen Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, talks about our enduring fascination with monsters.
Stephen Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, talks about our enduring fascination with monsters.
Steve Mirsky: Science Talk will begin after this short message.
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Doudna: So, I think this is, you know, something that everyone now is grappling with, is how do we – how do we – how do we proceed? There are no easy answers.
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Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on October 25, 2017. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode:
Stephen Asma: By the time you get to Frankenstein, what you have here is really a misunderstood creature whose father has abandoned it.
Mirsky: That’s Stephen Asma. He’s Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, and he’s the author of the 2009 book On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. He was last on the podcast ten years ago to talk about his trip to the creationist museum in Kentucky. And with Halloween approaching, and with me having finally gotten around to reading his book, I gave him a call to talk about monsters. He was in his office, so you’ll also hear some of the sounds of Chicago coming through his windows.
The book is called On Monsters, and you talk, obviously, in a book with that title, about monsters all over the place. But then toward the end of the book, you say, “One will search in vain through this book to find a single compelling definition of ‘monster.”” So, given that, where do we begin.
Asma: Okay, yeah. That’s not me throwing in the towel and saying, you know, there’s no sort of there there. My argument here is sort of based on how Wittgenstein thought about language, which is he very famously said, you know, language is as language does. And people who use English know what a monster is in a sort of general sense. And it has a lot of sort of related meanings and off-shoots.
So, sort of picture, like, you know, like a prototype concept, which is an idea in cognitive science, where you have sort of a hub and then the spokes come off the hub to form a wheel. And so, there’s a sort of a central notion of what a monster is, and then these sort of variations that come off of it.
And this, I think, is a better way to proceed, because it doesn’t start by trying to create some dictionary definition first, because as soon you get out in the world in the history and anthropology and the psychology of monsters, you’re going to find some monster that doesn’t fit your definition, and then you’re stuck, and it looks like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
So, my approach there was just to say, “Look, here’s how language really functions. And we’re going to follow this.” So, my book has built up a whole series of monsters, a kind of taxonomy of monsters, and by the end of it you can see what some of the inter-related themes are, and connections. So, that’s why I did it that way.
Mirsky: Okay. So, let’s talk about that historical aspect. Your book talks about different monsters having currency at different times in human cultural history.
Asma: Yeah, that’s – that’s really kin of a fun feature of the book, which is if you look at the ancient world – and I should say as a quick preface that this book focused on Western monsters. A whole other book could be written on the wonderful monsters of the East. But I had to sort of, you know, I had to reign it in somehow. In any case, if you look at the ancient Western monsters, you’ll find there what I call sort of the natural history monsters.
It’s pretty clear that the Greeks and the Romans were primarily interested in the kind of monsters that appear either as omens or warnings. And here we’re thinking about, you know, what they considered monsters’ births, which we now call genetic and developmental disabilities. We’re thinking about conjoined twins, or babies born with a cyclops face, or additional limbs, or missing limbs.
The ancient world thought of these as warnings about, you know, what might happen in a given political fight that was coming or in a war that was coming, a battle. And so, this was one of the sense of monster, and some fairly ugly stuff occurs here, because it was part of Roman law that if you found a conjoined twin or a deformed baby, you were supposed to drown it right away because it was some kind of threat to the overall social stability of Rome.
And so, there’s a lot of fairly ugly stuff in the history of – in sort of monsterology. But the other way they thought about monsters was that there were species of other creatures living in, you know, the sense of geography here was pretty dim. So, they said, “Well, living in parts of Asia or in parts of Africa, we have whole races of cyclops. We have whole races of dog-headed men,” which they called the cynocephalot.
Or, a race of humanoid creatures where they have no head, but their face protrudes out of their chest. And these are called the Blemmyae, or the Blemmyes. So, you’ll see in the ancient world a fascination with these natural history monsters, and that continues up into the medieval period. But then in the medieval period, you get the influence of this sort of Christian tradition, and eventually the Islamic tradition, too.
And there, the monsters are more like demons and sort of spirits that can possess you. And the rise of the witches and demons are sort of dominant in the medieval period. And then I would say, you know, if we just sort of fast forward quickly up to more present times, I think the way we use the term “monster,” is really with regard to the moral monster.
We think of human beings who have crossed some line and sort of dehumanized, either through psychopathology or just moral bad decisions, and engaged in monstrous behavior. So, we frequently talk about serial killers as being monstrous, and this kind of thing. So, the book ranges through a whole bunch of different types of monsters, but there are some interesting threads.
Mirsky: And the word “monster” itself, you point out in the book, is from the Latin word monstrum, which derives from the root monere, which means to warn. So, a monster for the ancient Romans was literally an omen, a warning, a warning.
Mirsky: And one of the interesting things you point out is that even though there has been this evolution of the categorization or the idea of monsters as being first these kind of, you know, unusual births, then to the spiritual, and now to the moral, there are pockets of cultures where the older ideas might still prevail.
Asma: Oh, yeah. That’s definitely true, yeah. We shouldn’t think of it like it’s just a linear progression, but rather these are – we should think of them – even though, I think certain kinds of monsters dominated a given historical era, nonetheless, it’s more like a sort of taxonomy that still exists in all of its forms.
So, for example, we’re still fascinated by natural history monsters, because that’s really what cryptozoology is. You know, we want to know is there a Bigfoot? What about the giant squid and other potentially monstrous creatures that we’ve not discovered yet in the ocean? So, that tradition is still alive and well.
And then there’s pockets within the developing world, and even within the United States where demon possession is considered absolutely real. And I was talking to a student just the other day who was telling me her grandmother is an exorcist, and she has performed many exorcisms on people who’ve had demon possessions. So, this stuff is alive and well, even in our current day, and our current era.
Mirsky: Which is kind of staggering, but we have evidence of this. There are news stories from time to time about some poor child who really gets murdered by their parents, or an exorcist who their parents bring in, because they’re under the impression the child is possessed. And in the course of trying to do the exorcism, they kill the poor kid.
Asma: Yeah, this is a horrifying sort of result of really irrational thinking and superstition gone wild. And it’s lamentable, as you said. And yet it persists. Of course the Enlightenment project, you know, was believed that if we just had enough science education, we would clear out these dark areas of the mind, so to speak, shine a light on it, and then there wouldn’t be this kind of superstitious violence.
And of course, all the other stuff, too, like prejudice based on superstition. And, you know, this is – it’s interesting that that was a huge debate between the Enlightenment figures and then the counter-Enlightenment Romantics, and right here at that fissure is where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein drops, you know? And here, we’re celebrating the 200th year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It's just exciting to see that that problem has not gone away.
And even now, we’re still debating was the Enlightenment project, you know, did it fail? Did we just not press it enough? Do we need to sort of gear up again and improve science education? Because I talked to my students, and many of them think of themselves as being very scientifically literate, you know? Of course, you know, maybe self-report is not the best, you know, measure here. But they see themselves as being very scientifically literate, because they have access to the internet and Bill Nye the Science Guy, and all that.
And yet, you press them a little further, and they’re also very superstitious. They have a lot of beliefs that would never pass muster in any kind of scientific testing. And so, it’s interesting, like the more scientific and intelligent the population gets, do monsters dissipate altogether, or do they simply retreat to other areas where, you know, they weren’t before?
And so, for example, there’s a lot of anxiety now about monstrous AI and artificial life and technology and so forth. And so, it’s an interesting question.
Mirsky: Yeah, I was going to ask you for an example, but there it is. I mean, they’re thinking of, for example, GMOs might be monster corn.
Asma: Exactly. I think that’s a good example of how maybe most people living in the developed West are not really worried about demons and, you know, “monsters,” but nonetheless, we have a lot of anxiety about genetically-modified organisms, because we’re into the genome in ways that no previous generation has ever been able to do.
And that has some frightening, you know, you’ll frequently hear people mention Frankenstein Syndrome, or, you know, are we paying god? And this is even a secular-minded sort of response, because you could end up with a kind of break-out organism, where unintended consequences of the genetic modification have now turned back and is harming the human population. That’s definitely a real concern.
Mirsky: So, you do spend a fair amount of time in the book talking about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Why, you know, today, Frankenstein is a joke almost because the most famous depiction is the Boris Karloff hulking creature, and we have Mel Brooks’ take on it. And so, you know, it’s just kind of funny. I know that there have been serious treatments. There was the Robert De Niro film a few years ago where they really tried to get back to the original book. But why was Frankenstein the book so important in the history of monsters?
Asma: Yeah, I mean, it is hard to see it with fresh eyes because, as you said, so many, you know, treatments of it in the media have either distorted it or made it just, you know, ridiculous. But I think if you go back to the original novel, it bears repeated readings. I think it’s still an exciting story because it – first of all, it wasn’t the first story like this, and many people know from the Jewish tradition the golem predates Frankenstein as a giant creature, which was brought to life by the rabbi in order to protect Jewish people from anti-Semitic pogroms.
And he turned it on, you know, by writing truth on its forehead. But like the Frankenstein creature, it was just a giant, bumbling, powerful creature, but also stupid. And it turned on, you know, its own people, and so it had to be deactivated, and now the legend is that it’s, you know, it’s basically sort of in suspended animation in the temple in a synagogue in Prague.
So, Frankenstein was not the first to do this kind of thing, but it’s pretty clear that at that moment, there was a very strong tension between the incredible advances of science, because we’re talking about basically the early 1800s, and the fears of scientific reductionism. So, here science was growing by leaps and bounds and solving many medical problems, in particular.
But also people felt that it was turning the human being into essentially a kind of very complicated machine. So, there was all the anxiety about losing the soul, let’s say. I mean, if you could make a pastiche or hybrid creature from parts of other humans, and maybe other animals, and then just charge it with electricity, sort of, in the Galvani, you know, technique, and spark it to life, then the sort of spiritual status of human beings became – came under question for a lot of people.
And I think that’s one of the things that continues to be troubling about Frankenstein for many people, because that tension hasn’t really gone away. And I would say one last thing about Frankenstein in terms of why it’s so compelling is that it gave us what I would call the sort of liberal interpretation of monsters. It’s sort of the first really clear articulation of this.
And when I say liberal, I mean, you know, small L liberal, the Western tradition of increasing tolerance. So, what you found in Frankenstein was not just the kind of evil-doer that you saw in earlier monster stories, like Grendel in Beowulf, for example. That thing’s just pure evil, and the spawn of Cane, and, you know, you’ve just got to dispatch it to hell or whatever.
But by the time you get to Frankenstein, what you have here is really a misunderstood creature whose father has abandoned it, and it’s pretty clear from the novel that if he had just been embraced by his parent and by society, he would not have gone on a killing rampage. So, you begin to get what I’m calling this liberal view of the monster, which is you begin to see the interior of somebody that on the outward face of it just looks horrifying.
Now, you being to see, oh, there’s a psychology there. This person is wounded. This person is hurt. You know, maybe they need a hug, or, you know, something like this. And this can – this is the kind of monster story that we’ve had a lot in the 20th century. There’s many, you know, versions of this now. So, Frankenstein got that going, I think.
Mirsky: Yeah, and you talk about the fact that the mob in Frankenstein that comes after him, there’s a way to interpret where they’re the monsters.
Asma: I mean, you even see this in sort of cartoon versions nowadays. Like, what is this whole franchise of Shrek, you know? The ogre that’s misunderstood and the villagers chasing him down, you know? So, we have a lot of these kinds of stories. You know, there’s a very famous film by the filmmaker who made the original Frankenstein called Freaks, Todd Browning.
And Browning’s film, Freaks, was sort of banned for a long time. But if you see that film now, you’ll see that it, too, has this sort of wonderful embracing of diversity message, because the freaks – and here we’re talking about people with, you know, the bearded ladies. Some of the characters have microcephaly, so very small heads. You have people that are just different, and they were, you know, so-called freaks.
And in the story here, what’s developed is that they end up being really the morally upright and impressive characters of that movie, and it’s the regular human beings, the regular “normal” people end up being the really monstrous characters. And that is an interesting reversal of what I would call the old pagan monster stories, where you just have heroes versus monsters. Now it’s much more complicated. [music starts]
Mirsky: We’ll be right back after this.
Brian: Hey! Brian and Andrea, again, co-hosts of the Base Pairs podcast from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. We call it the podcast about the power of genetic information.
Andrea: That’s why we’re thrilled to share out latest episode, where we talk about how American science once took a wrong turn toward eugenics. Come find us on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Sound Cloud, Google Play, or wherever else you get your podcasts.
Mirsky: Now more with Stephen Asma.
Side show attractions were really popular in the 19th century in the US, thanks to Barnum and others. And even into the second part of the 20th century, I remember as a little boy in the ‘60s going to a side show at the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers circus and seeing, you know, unusual people there.
Asma: Yeah. That’s – I did, too, and it’s interesting that now there is a revitalization of this tradition, but it is a really – it’s a knowing, critical sort of version. So, I have – there’s a bunch of folks in Brooklyn, and you know Brooklyn’s kind of ground zero for hipsters. And so, there’s this sort of new movement. Some of them are my friends. And they host a Congress of Curious People every year at Coney Island where people who are different will actually display themselves.
In other words, they’re not being exploited. They’re actually part of a new tradition, which wants to talk about difference and curiosity. And so, they’ll have what used to be, you know, called freak shows, they’ll have shows, and then they’ll have academics and professors discussing, you know, what’s the biology of these – the anatomical differences here? Cultural theorists talking about what’s the cultural sort of implications here.
So, there’s kind of a new version of this that’s kind of, you know, it’s interesting. It’s well aware of its history, and it’s moving beyond that. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff here. One is why are bodies that are different so –
Mirsky: Compelling, yeah.
Asma: attractive. Yeah, why do they draw us in, you know? And I think it’s naïve to pretend that that his just, you know, always some kind of lascivious, you know, morally reprehensible response. I think it’s a fairly human response to difference. And the mind is a cognitive system, and it processes the world, and it categorizes the world. And when you meet somebody who’s a conjoined twin, or they have extra digits on their hand, or they’re missing digits on their hand, this is a kind of – it disrupts the traditional categories of how the world is structured for us, the cognitive categories.
And what we now know from increasing, you know, studies in psychology and cognitive science is that that is – that arouses the cognitive system, and it draws your attention, and you become curious. And this is fairly natural, and if we didn’t have this power, or this ability, you know, we might not have lasted very long during our evolution, because it’s very good. It gets you to key in on things that are not quite, you know, fitting with your usual categories.
Now, what happens as a result of this, of course, can be sad, because it can lead to exploitative ways of thinking and putting on “freak shows,” and we all know, perhaps, the story of the elephant man, John Merrick, or Joseph Merrick. And so, there’s some sad stories there. But to be interested in bodies that are different is, I think, fairly human. And if we could engage in that in a way that’s not exploitative, then it’s, I think it’s positive.
Mirsky: Yeah, you have this marvelous story in the book of a little boy who is at a museum of curiosities, oddities with his mother.
Asma: Oh yeah.
Mirsky: And I think it’s in one of the footnotes, even. And he’s just, like, so freaked out by these malformed fetuses that are on display, or whatever they were. And the mother is concerned that he’s going to be affected in a bad way by this, and she offers to take him home. And his response is….
Asma: Yeah, his response is, “No way. We’re not leaving. Let’s stay here.” And he’s gasping, you know, he’s gasping in horror and excitement at these exhibits. And this was in London. It’s a museum that people can still go to, and I highly recommend it. It’s the Huntarian collection in the Royal College of Surgeons there. And it is one calamity after another, collected by an amazing early surgeon, John Hunter. And, yeah, the boy is absolutely astounded by some of the things he seeing.
And, like any parent, you know, the mother’s just worried, is this going to you know, mess up his head. And yet, and so this really gets at something important, which we are both attracted and repulsed by certain kinds of difference. And this is an interesting, you know, aspect of monsterology in general. Like sometimes we’re really drawn to the thing as being different or strange, but also sometimes the monster or some of these so-called freaks that we’re talking about can be difficult to look at, and shocking.
And they activate the emotional system, the affective system. So, you might even get into a kind of – you feel the emotions of fight or flight. And this is – you can see this most clearly, I think, in the horror genre, because what you’re doing is you’re paying money to go see, like, some fairly horrifying thing, and it’s simultaneously enjoyable and frightening at the same time.
And that is a sort of a fascinating psychological experience. And here we are at Halloween where, you know, everybody is doing this. You know, you go not only to see a monster chase somebody around like an old wolfman movie, but now we’re into this whole new layer of, like, torture films. You know, the Saw films and this kind of stuff. So, it’s pretty interesting that as a culture, we pay money to go see this stuff.
Mirsky: Yeah, it’s interesting. I don’t particularly care for horror movies, although I watched the Walking Dead on TV, but that’s free. And you talk about zombies. But I want to get back to the Elephant Man, because that was directed by David Lynch.
Mirsky: Produced by Mel Brooks, by the way.
Asma: Was it really?
Mirsky: A lot of people don’t know that.
Asma: I didn’t know that.
Mirsky: Yeah, Mel Brooks has a brand called Brooks Films where I believe it was he and his wife, Anne Bancroft, who is in Elephant Man.
Asma: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Mirsky: And I think Mel Brooks produced some more arty movies that he did not write or direct under that name Brooks Films. And most people don’t realize. But speaking of Young Frankenstein, yeah, Mel Brooks and David Lynch came together to give us the Elephant Man movie. But, it’s directed by David Lynch. And you spend a few pages on David Lynch as a director who really concentrates on some of the weirdness and monstrous aspects of what we would otherwise probably think of as just regular day-to-day life.
Asma: Yeah. He’s the – I think he’s the master of this. There are others, too. They don’t, sort of, get the notoriety, because I think this kind of art work doesn’t have the kind of commercial success that just the traditional monster story would have. But I think somebody like David Lynch and writers like Poe, Edgar Allen Poe, they were able to show this kind of underlying, almost existential horror to just the everyday thing.
And this is because, I think, you know, their work is informed, whether they know it or not, by the Freudian revolution that occurred in the 20th century. And whether or not you like Freud as a scientist, which I, you know, I think he’s dubious in that regard. Nonetheless, he gave us, really, the full appreciation of a large part of our psyche being unconscious, where many of our motives and our feelings are happening at a level that we don’t have direct access to during waking life.
You do get access to it, you know, during dreams, and perhaps in other kinds of states of consciousness. But David Lynch is able to really bring that – those kind of unconscious associations that are fearful and have anxiety into his films so that even mundane scenes, you know – I mean, he does some really way out talking tree kind of stuff.
But, he’ll also just have you, you know, sitting in a room with two people talking. He’s able to somehow make that scene really ominous. And that’s where, I think, his gift lies. And, of course you can see the difference between what I think of his most coherent film, which is probably Elephant Man, and one of the earlier films, which is Eraser Head.
And if you watch Eraser Head, it’s just one crazy thing after another; deeply affecting, though. I think it just goes – when you watch one of his films, the film goes under your neocortex, straight into your limbic system, and just you know, thrashes around in there. And basically you hold onto it for days and days, because it affects your emotional system. But a lot of this is happening sort of at the unconscious level. And he’s a master of it.
Mirsky: Yeah, I had a friend who insisted I see Eraser Head, so I finally watched it with him. And when it was over, I said, “Okay, I’ve seen it. I ain’t never seeing that again.”
Mirsky: So, but there’s a great quote in the book about Quentin Tarantino is fascinated by somebody cutting off somebody else’s ear. David Lynch is fascinated by the ear.
Asma: Yeah, that’s right. That’s a good way to – I think that encapsulates all that I was just saying in a much better way.
Mirsky: And Blue Velvet, I think this ear that somebody finds is a crucial part of the plot.
Asma: Yeah. It’s been a while since I saw Blue Velvet, but I do remember these close ups on this sort of ear just sort of sitting in a field, as I recall. And that’s classic Lynch, you know. And that’s a kind of – I think other horror writers, famous ones, like H.P. Lovecraft, really, they detected this, too. They said, look, there’s – yeah, we know about the monster kind of horror. That’s, you know, just somebody chasing around somebody else. But then he says there’s another kind of horror, which Lovecraft calls cosmic horror.
And here it’s harder to express, but it’s more like an existential sense that, like, the whole cosmos or the universe is not a safe place. You know? It’s not here for your happiness. It’s potentially, you know, just nihilistic, through and through. And that’s the kind of stuff that I think many 20th century film makers and, of course, 21st century artists are paying with beautifully.
And I think a lot of that goes back to the Darwinian revolution, too, because in a way, Darwin gave us a world, too, which is not designed for our happiness. It’s really, it’s a world of survival of the fittest, and that has implications for monster stories and horror.
Mirsky: So, speaking of Darwin, you talk a little bit about how you could look at all the different artificially-bred doc species as types of monsters. I mean, compared –
Mirsky: compared to the starting point, which, let’s say it’s the wolf, you know. A Chihuahua is a freaking monster.
Asma: Yeah, it’s true. In fact, that’s what Darwin says in his notebooks. In my book on monsters, there’s actually some fairly original research on Darwin, because I went and looked at the notebooks very carefully with an eye to his comments about monsters and monstrosities. And there he does say, look, most of the monsters that we have are the creations of artificial selection, like these dogs that we’ve been composing over, you know, hundreds of years.
So, now we’ve got dogs that, well, we wanted to make their face shorter and shorter, and now they can’t even breathe properly. Or we wanted to make their legs look a certain way, and now their hips pop out with dysplasia regularly. And so, we’ve got all these really monstrous dogs. You know, we want to make them small so they fit in our purses.
Well, as a result of that, you’ve got these creatures that would never survive in the wild, can’t reproduce without our help, and in every other way seem fairly monstrous. And so, Darwin was the guy who pointed that out. And what’s sort of interesting about Darwin and monsters is that before he hit on the theory of natural selection as the actual mechanism by which, you know, evolution occurs, he did dabble for a while with the idea that monstrous births might be a launching pad for evolutionary trajectories.
But he, after researching that for a couple of years, he rejected it. And he found, by interviewing and discussing it with many breeders that, in fact, the results of some of these monstrous births were almost always dead-ends, that the animal would die, or the animal would be unable to reproduce. And so, he eventually rejected this as a mechanism, but I thought it was kind of interesting that at least for a while he considered it.
Mirsky: Now, to fine-tune that idea a little bit with Darwin and the breeding, is the idea in the book that because of the slight variation in our genetics compared to our parents, we’re all monsters.
Asma: You hit on it there. Because of what we now understand about genetics, we now know that diversity and hybridizing, you know, of gene information is really – that’s the coin of the realm. That’s how evolution works. That’s not some deviation from, you know, some precise copying mechanism. And so, yeah, after Darwin, we are all monsters, and we might as well embrace our monstrosity.
And this is a big difference from how somebody like Aristotle would have thought about it, because Aristotle thought, oh, every human being has the exact same – he didn’t know anything about genetics, but he thought there must be some form of the human, and that it replicates, but the material part messes up the information and creates diversity.
And so, he thought it was sad that we were all, you know, diverse in this way. And that’s because he didn’t understand how biology really worked in this sense. After Darwin, we understand that we are all hybrids and composites, and we’re all sort of mash ups. And we also know that in being a mash up, that’s what gives us adaptive strengths, because having diverse responses to environmental changes is what has helped our species, you know, or any species really adapt.
Mirsky: Now why were you compelled to spend what had to be many years to do the research to write this book?
Asma: Before this book, I had written a book on museums and the development of natural history museums, in particular, called Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. And in doing that research, I came across a lot of medical monsters, because there’s – really the development of natural history is very much involved in this kind of material.
And then that mixed with my own sort of phobia, which was I have kind of a fear of deep water, and, you know, like, kind of a – I don’t know, like, a sea monster – I don’t really believe that there’s any sea monsters, but I definitely have some anxiety about swimming in murky water. And apparently, this is a fairly universal fear, which may have evolved because, you know, we were under threat by crocodiles quite a bit during the evolution of homo sapiens.
But those things together, they sort of combine, and I thought, why, you know, as a philosopher, I don’t really see any philosophers looking at things like monsters or – there’s been a couple of people looking at horror, but I thought it would be a fun sort of research angle, and it turned out to be a gold mine.
I mean, there’s just so much philosophically interesting stuff there, but also history, psychology, even anthropology and cultural evolution are interested in, you know, why do hybrids, you know, why do they become such good memes? Why do they travel so well through culture? So, so much fascinating stuff arose as soon as I started to get into it. And I thought, “Well, I’ve got to write a book on this,” and that’s pretty much how it happened.
Mirsky: Yeah, and we should say that the word “monster” in a medical context has a real meaning. It’s not – we’re not calling people monsters to be pejorative.
Asma: Yeah, here we mean the word here entirely with, you know, quotes around it, and not in any sort of a pejorative sense. But it’s pretty clear that if you study genetic or developmental abnormalities, you’re studying what’s called teratology. And Teratology is literally – teratos is literally the Greek word for monster. So, you are literally doing monsterology if you’re doing teratology, which is a legitimate medical field.
Mirsky: So, anybody out there doing monsterology in your lab today, you know, happy Halloween.
Asma: Exactly, happy Halloween. [music]
Mirsky: I’ll be back in a moment.
Andrea: Hi. Brian and Andrea one last time. Before you go, we want to tell you why we’re so excited about the power of genetic information. It helps us put food on our tables. It tells us about out ancient ancestors. And it can even help us map the brain with DNA barcodes.
Brian: We cover a whole swath of subjects, anywhere the power of genetic information plays a role. So, check out Base Pairs, the official podcast of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Search for Base Pairs wherever you get your podcasts to learn more.
Mirsky: That’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can read about how the common shrew shrinks its head to better deal with the cold of winter. Monstrous! And follow us on Twitter, where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us. [Music continues, with Frankenstein’s monster talking.]