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March 28, 2013

Monsters have a long history in both science fiction (obviously) and philosophy (less obviously). Fantastic and terrifying creatures show up in philosophical thought as early as Plato. In Book IX of his Republic, Socrates speaks of “the composite creations of ancient mythology, such as the Chimera or Scylla or Cerberus, and there are many others in which two or more different natures are said to grow into one.” These creatures posses “the form of a multitudinous, many-headed monster, having a ring of heads of all manner of beasts, tame and wild, which he is able to generate and metamorphose at will.” Plato’s point, of course, is not to engage in gratuitous cataloging of monsters. Rather, he’s interested in exploring models of the human soul, and talk of bizarre creatures helps to bring the strangeness of his subject matter to the fore. Thomas Hobbes also helped himself to images, most famously the leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job. The creation of the state “is the generation,” Hobbes writes in Chapter XVII, “of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”


Now comes Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters, which is reviewed in the Telegraph by Peter Stanford.

When it comes to monsters, there tend to be two camps: those whose default position is that there is no smoke (often literally) without fire, and who therefore gaze out across Loch Ness or peer into the night sky, yearning for a first-hand experience of something alien; and those who pity such seekers and try instead to understand what facts lie behind the legends they have taken to heart. The first group tends to get a very bad press, but science journalist Matt Kaplan in The Science of Monsters tries engagingly to be more open minded.

What he has grasped is that, however much the rational and sane majority airily dismiss tales of fire-breathing dragons, strange creatures from outer space or beasts that inhabit the depths, there is still buried in most of us that reflex that can’t help, on a dark night, walking along a lonely country lane, wondering, “What if there’s something out there?” And when we do, the collective cultural baggage of these tales of ghosts, ghouls and griffins is usually sufficient to make us put our hands over our eyes to block out what may just be lurking out there. But, then, we still peep.

It is that tension that makes the book such a lively and compelling read. It treads lightly through vast swathes of ancient history, literature, folklore and contemporary popular culture, pausing occasionally to pass what has been gathered up through the filter of science. So if you have ever wanted a clear account of the Minotaur, the Medusa, werewolves and even King Kong, this short, sharp book is a perfect starting point, linking the Ancient Greeks with Ridley Scott.

Read the rest here.

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