On this episode:. 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. The book is called On Monsters , and you talk, obviously, in a book with that title, about monsters all over the place.
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. Your book talks about different monsters having currency at different times in human cultural history. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. So, a monster for the ancient Romans was literally an omen, a warning, a warning.
You know, we want to know is there a Bigfoot? So, that tradition is still alive and well.
- On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T Asma.
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So, this stuff is alive and well, even in our current day, and our current era. And in the course of trying to do the exorcism, they kill the poor kid. And yet it persists.
And of course, all the other stuff, too, like prejudice based on superstition. It's just exciting to see that that problem has not gone away. Did we just not press it enough?
Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural
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.
They have a lot of beliefs that would never pass muster in any kind of scientific testing. 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.
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? But I think if you go back to the original novel, it bears repeated readings. 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.
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. 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 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. This person is wounded. This person is hurt. You know, maybe they need a hug, or, you know, something like this. So, Frankenstein got that going, I think. Like, what is this whole franchise of Shrek, you know?
On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T Asma | The Sunday Times
So, we have a lot of these kinds of stories. 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 that is an interesting reversal of what I would call the old pagan monster stories, where you just have heroes versus monsters. We call it the podcast about the power of genetic information. Side show attractions were really popular in the 19 th century in the US, thanks to Barnum and others.
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. One is why are bodies that are different so —. Yeah, why do they draw us in, you know? And the mind is a cognitive system, and it processes the world, and it categorizes the world. 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. Either by signing into your account or linking your membership details before your order is placed.
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