Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Monsters & the Tyranny of Normality: How Do Biologists Interpret Anomalous Forms?

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Monsters & the Tyranny of Normality: How Do Biologists Interpret Anomalous Forms?

Article excerpt


In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, monsters were wonders (Allchin, 2007b). Anomalous forms--like conjoined twins, hermaphrodites, hydrocephalic babies, or the extraordinarily hairy Petrus Gonsalus and his equally hairy children--amazed people. They evoked a spirit of inquiry that helped fuel the emergence of modern science. Today, however, such bodies tend to strike us as freakish or grotesque--possibly even "against nature." How did our cultural perspective, and with it, our values and emotional responses, change so radically?

The shift in cultural views paralleled, ironically, deepening scientific understanding. Exceptions and anomalies can be powerful investigative tools. In this case, human monsters eventually prompted a new science, teratology, which compared normal and abnormal development. The scientific explanations and categories seemed to support value judgments. The history of monsters helps reveal the roots of a common belief (another sacred bovine?): That the "normal" course of events reflects nature's fundamental order. Well construed, monsters can help us rethink the meaning of normality and of the concept of laws of nature.

Leveraging Exceptions

Monsters are fascinating, of course, because they do not fit customary expectations. Such exceptions can be valuable opportunities for interpreting the unexceptional. One can begin to look for the relevant differences that reflect the underlying cause in both cases. It is a classic research strategy, especially in biology. Loss or modification of a structure can highlight its function.

So, for example, vitamins were discovered through vitamin deficiency diseases, such as scurvy and beriberi. Likewise, the role of proteins in gene expression emerged from studying heritable enzyme deficiencies, such as alcaptonuria and phenylketonuria. Sickle cell anemia has become a classic example in textbooks, in part because it was important historically in understanding hemoglobin and protein structure, as well as the evolutionary consequences of pleiotropy (Howe, 2007).

Similarly, diabetes provides insight into insulin and the physiology of regulating blood glucose. Slips of the tongue are clues to how the brain processes language (missed notes in playing piano, too!) (Erard, 2007). Autism is opening understanding of the physical architecture of synapses (Garber, 2007). The dramatic influence of non-native species, such as zebra mussels or gypsy moths, reveals how coevolved relationships often stabilize ecosystems. Biological systems at all levels can be understood when customary patterns are disrupted.

Exceptions, or anomalies, were an obsession in the early 1600s for Frederico Cesi, founder of perhaps the earliest scientific institution, the Accademia Lincei (Freedburg, 2002). Cesi's foremost goal was to document and classify every organism on Earth. He was thus intrigued by specimens that fit two categories at once. A bat seemed like both rodent and bird. But it could not be both. It posed a puzzle for how to adjust the existing categories. What were goose barnacles?--a fungus that generated a shell? Why did they produce what seemed like feathers? Double fruits, lemons with various excrescences, and other "monstrous" forms, Cesi regarded as cryptic clues to nature's order.

Physician and anatomist William Hunter would echo such sentiments nearly two centuries later:

   Even monsters, and all uncommon, and all diseased animals
   productions, are useful in anatomical enquires; as the mechanism,
   or texture, which is concealed in the ordinary fashion of parts,
   may be obvious in a preternatural composition.

In such examples, he rhapsodized, nature "has hung out a train of lights that guide us through her labyrinth" (1784, p. 4). Monsters offered deeper insight into ordinary nature.

From Anomalous to Pathological

The growing desire in the 1600s to understand monsters, along with other wonders and "preternatural" phenomena, helped motivate the growth of modern scientific investigation. …

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