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The apprehension of disorder : science and the naturalization of monstrosity in England, 1775-1830 Adams, Kim Susan


This essay is about the history of teratology, the name given during the 1830's to that scientific discipline concerned exclusively with the study of physical malformations. Until recently, most writers interested in this subject have themselves been practicing scientists, committed to positivist views of science and its history. As such, they have tended to represent the history of teratology as a continuous and objective progression of knowledge, from error to truth. I would argue that such interpretations, mainly because they fail to contextualize past thinking about monstrous phenomena, perpetuate a false impression of the history of teratology. This essay offers an alternative interpretation of that history, one which seeks to restore the relation between the history of science and the history of ideas. A basic premise of this paper is that the appearance of teratology in the nineteenth century is not best characterized as a continuation of eighteenth-century scientific thought and practice. On the contrary, between 1775 and 1830 the study of monstrosity was fundamentally transformed. Not only were the theories and the language of monstrosity revised, but the people who studied monsters during that period became increasingly conscious of themselves as professional scientists, differentiated from the world of popular understanding by specialized knowledge and expertise. At a deeper level, these changes may be understood as part of a more general reformulation of biological knowledge which occurred toward the end of the eighteenth century. Until around the 1750's, the study of monsters belonged to natural history and was informed by a code of knowledge which gave priority to structure, classification and the external appearance of living things. According to the principles of that order, monsters were "monstrous" precisely because, by virtue of manifest structural irregularities, they appeared to be so. Qualitatively differentiated from Nature's regular species, they were segregated in a special category of natural history and investigated as singular curiosities of nature. Towards the end of the century, this view of living things began to give way to an historical-organic concept of "life." Absorbed into the larger study of life, investigations of monsters became dominated by the biological principles of "organization" and "development," and the monstrous became equated strictly with the pathological. Henceforth, scientific conceptions of monstrous organisms were radically altered. Among nineteenth-century teratologists, monsters were not irregular freaks of nature, but regular and objective specimens of abnormal development, capable of significantly enhancing scientific knowledge of the norm. According to nineteenth-century thought, such organisms, while they were quantitatively deviant, were by no means qualitatively different from other forms of life. Indeed since malformations were subject to the same invariable laws of physiology and embryology which governed all organisms, there was, in reality, nothing monstrous in monstrosity. It was with this transformation in the essential meaning of monstrosity that the science of teratology became possible.

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