When you consider the magnitude of the increase in scientific knowledge and technological progress that marks the last century or so it seems logical to claim that "we live in an age of science and technology." At least, that's the conventional wisdom, and a point that Michael Shermer -- founding editor of Skeptic magazine, and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time -- argues for. And yet, if this actually is the case, he asks:
"why do so many pseudoscientific and non-scientific traditions abound?. . . One may rationalize that compared with the magical thinking of the Middle Ages things are not so bad. But statistically speaking pseudoscientific beliefs are experiencing a revival in the late 20th century" -- with astrology, ESP, communication with the dead and so forth being held as credible by large numbers of people, along with "other popular beliefs of our time that have little to no veracity in evidence includ[ing]: dowsing, the Bermuda triangle, poltergeists, biorhythms, creationism . . . UFOS, emotions in plants, life after death, monsters, graphology, crypto-zoology. . ."
In short, Shermer concludes that such excursions beyond the bounds of intellectual propriety "are more pervasive than most of us like to think, and this is curious considering how far science has come since the Middle Ages" [my emphasis]. This point is one that comes up frequently when the topic of science and popular culture is on the table, and seems so self-evidently sensible that nothing more need be said. But let's take a few minutes to look at the medieval and the modern together and consider some variations on this theme, using the circulation of bestiaries as our point of departure.
Bestiaries were illustrated books of creatures both common and fantastic that were enormously popular during the 12th and 13th centuries. These illustrations were accompanied by descriptions of the entries that combined natural history, legendary stories, and travelers' anecdotes and that imparted religious lessons in allegorical form. The rationale for treating animals in this way came from passages in the Bible that were read as indicating that God had given them particular characteristics that were to serve as lessons for how humans should conduct their lives; see, for example, Job 7:12: "But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee/ Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee." These lessons were imparted from animals known to exist in real life such as the peacock and the wolf, and others that were seemingly beyond the reality of everyday experience, such as the phoenix (illustrated above from the Aberdeen Bestiary):
. . In addition to providing intriguing interpretations of animals, bestiaries offered tales about the existence of bizarre and loathsome creatures, many of which appeared in medieval art. The basilisk, for example, which was equated with the devil, could kill by its very smell, by a glance, or even by the sound of its hissing. The manticore, with the face of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion, possessed a seductive voice likened to the sound of a fine flute. It represented the siren song of temptation that surrounded the Christian soul on its perilous journey through an earthly existence. [Melanie Holcomb, "Animals in Medieval Art," Metropolitan Museum of Art's Timeline of Art History.]
As intriguing as the strange creatures are that turn up in medieval bestiaries, it isn't surprising to modern eyes to find elements of the fantastic contained in what seemingly look like works of medieval natural history, since we assume that in an age of alchemy and astrology a belief in something that can't be captured or witnessed -- like unicorns -- is simply part of a pre-scientific, only partially logical mindset in which magical creatures could be imagined as existing somewhere off the known map in terra incognita. [This description is partly caricature -- in both the ancient and the medieval periods there were some who considered descriptions of such strange beasts to be nothing more than lies or tall tales, and viewed them with a skeptical eye.]
However, at the end of the 20th century on into our own time period, it would seem certain that we live in an "age of science," and that our society would have left such child-like fairy-tale imaginings behind us. Or . . . have we? Let's see what the fantastic birds and beasts contained in modern-day bestiaries can teach thee and me. . .
There are two paths to consider in thinking about "modern-day bestiaries." The first fork in the road leads to fantasy literature, films, and games (think Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft and such) which are enormously popular. These worlds of high fantasy feature magical and mythical zoologies populated by monsters and fabulous animals that make earlier bestiaries seem rather tame in comparison. While the modern-day bestiaries that accompany the worlds of Middle Earth and Dungeon gaming fill a niche designed for entertainment rather than instruction, it is interesting nonetheless to note how many hours that many moderns have spent with dragons and basilisks and elves -- no doubt more than most folks in the middle ages themselves would have. Another interesting aspect of the popularity of high fantasy in an age of science is the fact that fantasy as a genre outsells the literature of wonder that is supposed to be the companion of the rise of the scientific worldview in the 19th and 20th centuries: science fiction. You can find a number of places on the web where vigorous discussions have been held about the reasons why fantasy outsells science fiction (for example, here and here). A characteristic analysis that argues that many fans of fantasy are science/technology averse can be seen with this comment to a thread at sfsignal.com:
"Technology horrifies too many modern men, and our culture, as a whole no longer prizes the use of reason to solve problems. Fantasy is naturally a literature of the heart, in that it deals with problems solved by emotion, or faith, or magical thinking. Frodo does not outsmart Sauron: he prevails because his heart is pure, and because Supernatural Fate intervenes at the last moment. One might think fantasies like LORD OF THE RINGS would appeal only to the most nostalgic of conservative tastes: people who admired the romance and mystique of monarchy. But the sense that modern civilization has poisoned the Earth, that technology is Mephistopheles, that we all need to return to the Earth and Get Back to the Garden is a widespread idea among in academia and in Hollywood. These ideas have a natural resonance with a fairy-tale version of the middle ages: if only magic actually had worked, then we could all live as hobbits or elves, in union with nature, without the factory-smog of Mordor tainting the air."
"Indeed, the popularity of this formula is deeply thought-provoking. Millions of people who live in a time of genuine miracles -- in which the great-grandchildren of illiterate peasants may routinely fly through the sky, roam the Internet, view far-off worlds and elect their own leaders -- slip into delighted wonder at the notion of a wizard hitchhiking a ride from an eagle. Many even find themselves yearning for a society of towering lords and loyal, kowtowing vassals.
Wouldn't life seem richer, finer if we still had kings? If the guardians of wisdom kept their wonders locked up in high wizard towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way our unseemly 'scientists' do today? Weren't miracles more exciting when they were doled out by a precious few, instead of being commercialized, bottled and marketed to the masses for $1.95?
Didn't we stop going to the moon because it had become boring?"
Brin goes on to cite a similar interpretation, from Vivian Sobchack, a professor of film and television studies at UCLA: "Change and technology are so pervasive a part of daily life that for the most part there's no magic to it anymore . . . The promise of science and technology has been normalized. The utopian vision we had didn't come to pass. The magic would have to come from somewhere else, and we found it in fantasy."
Our second path in thinking about "modern bestiaries" leads not away from science but toward science, in the form of what was christened in the 1950s as "cryptozoology": the study of hidden animals -- most famously, such contested entities as the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. (These unverified critters are called "cryptids" by those who search for them.) Such (elusive? imaginary? mythical?) creatures are well-known beyond the crypto community, given their high-profile starring roles in many a cable special, not to mention untold numbers of newspaper and magazine articles. And these shadowy beasts have a whole new stomping ground in which to roam more widely than ever before, thanks to the ecology of the Internet.
Even though cryptozoology has failed to garner academic respectability, its enthusiasts nonetheless believe that the search for evidence of the existence of cryptids should be considered to fall within a generous understanding of what is meant by scientific exploration, or at least should be understood as proto-science. However, in a piece on the nature of cryptozoology and science, Ben Speers-Roesch notes that although "cryptozoology is usually held to be scientific by its practitioners," most professionals "find it difficult to call cryptozoology science, often with good reason -- much of cryptozoology is rife with credulous thinking and illogical conclusions." A particular problem in regard to its scientific status is the fact that much of the basis for cryptozoological investigations rests on eyewitness reports and anecdotal evidence, which are considered to be mushy grounds to stand on, scientifically.
Roesch argues that "the idea that giant unknown primates, living dinosaurs, huge thunderbirds, and lake monsters share the Earth with us are fantasies that are at odds with a great deal of accepted paleontological and zoological evidence" [my emphasis]. This recalls the remark above, that "fantasy is naturally a literature of the heart," and suggests that cryptozoological ventures, if driven by wishful hopes rather than objective reasons, are matters of the heart, not the head: how could they be scientific then, under any definition?
We are left therefore with the knowledge that an interest in creatures of dubious reality -- that nonetheless inspire wonder because of speculations about their fantastic natures -- is one with a long heritage, with dynamics still visible today, despite the fact that the spread of the scientific worldview should have encouraged us to move beyond an enthusiasm for the mysterious and incredible. How to explain this? Peter Dendle, in a literary exploration that compares medieval bestiaries with modern-day cryptozoological encyclopedias -- "Cryptozoology in the medieval and modern worlds" -- points out that indeed "No age has been without its share of hidden creatures, and confirmation of purported species has been a vital and consciously debated issue among the collectors of human knowledge for thousands of years." But a key difference between then and now is that, for the most part, professional science sees matters such as fantastic creatures as falling outside the realm of real knowledge, suitable only for the rubbish heap of pseudoscience:
"Whereas in the Middle Ages the educated scholar was as likely -- or as unlikely -- as an illiterate peasant to believe in a given unconfirmed species, in the post-Enlightenment world there is a conspicuous disconnect between academic science and popular belief on a surprisingly wide range of topics. The ubiquitous popular belief in ghosts, psychic ability, alien encounters, communication with the dead, and astrology, to name but a sampling of the 'paranormal,' documents a resistance to the canons of belief doled out by the orthodox structures of contemporary academic science."
In fact, Dendle argues (and note the similarity to the arguments above about fantasy),that "Cryptozoology thus fulfills an important role: it represents a quest for magic and wonder in a world many perceive as having lost its mystique."
In the Harry Potter books, the magical world exists not in some long-distant past time, but right alongside the non-magical world of modern-day ordinary folk, who are called "muggles." It's just that muggles can't see this world, since the wizarding community conceived of means to conceal it, including "all magical beasts, beings, and spirits," as described in Newt Scamander's (pseudonym of J.K. Rowling) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (p. xvi). Magic is presumed not to exist, even though it surrounds the mundane world, the two intersecting only at odd times, as when the "world's largest kelpie continues to evade capture in Loch Ness [since it] appears to have developed a positive thirst for publicity" (p. xvii). Perhaps it's an apt metaphor for where we are today, presumably so long past the middle ages on into the "higher" ages: magic has seemingly disappeared from the cultural map, at least when a scientific overlay is placed on top of it -- and yet it exists even still, for those who have the inclination to spy out its traces on the palimpsest, making it part of their speculative lives, whether in terms of entertainment or their intellectual passions.
The question of what to make of the persistence of the fantastic, the magical, and the wondrous isn't going to be solved by consigning these facts of human life to the realm of pseudoscience. After a hundred years of working the problem that way, it doesn't seem to have borne much fruit. Like the medieval readers of the bestiaries, I think we will have to listen to the beasts and the birds, and try to discern what they have to teach us. To be continued, then . . .
For more: Note: A recent report indicates that only 72% of Americans are scientifically illiterate today -- that is, unable "to understand approximately 20 of 31 scientific concepts and terms similar to those that would be found in articles that appear in the New York Times weekly science section and in an episode of the PBS program NOVA" -- as compared to 90% in 1988. At the same time, however, the survey reveals that there has been an "unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience." See also the chapter in the 2006 NSF Science and Engineering Indicators report on "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding." For historical background on, and examples of, bestiaries, in addition to the beautifully reproduced Aberdeen Bestiary noted above, see David Badke's The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages; the Getty Center's bestiary pages; the University of Wisconsin's reproduction of T.H. White's The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (1960) -- which for a long while was the only English translation available of a medieval bestiary; and a recent exhibition on Bestiaries by the Bibliotheque nationale de France. It turns out that the phrase we all think appeared on early maps -- "here be dragons" -- is one of those historical myths that is hard to shake: see Erin C. Blake's essay, "Where Be 'Here Be Dragons'?" at maphist.nl (a discussion group on the history of cartography), and for more, see Michael Livingston's "Modern Medieval Map Myths: the Flat World, Ancient Sea-Kings, and Dragons" at strangehorizons.com. Don't know much about Dungeons and Dragons? Then catch up with Peter Bebergal's "How 'Dungeons' Changed the World" from the Boston Globe in 2004 (the 30th anniversary of D&D's introduction). For introductions to cryptozoology see here and here.)
Images: The phoenix picture from the Aberdeen Bestiary is located at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/comment/56rbirdf.hti; for the 1987 D&D pamphlet cover, see the Dungeons and Dragons online archive at http://home.flash.net/~brenfrow/dd/dd-ac10.htm; the Tolkien picture is the cover of The Tolkien Bestiary by David Day; and the Harry Potter book cover is from the UK -- a BBC Children's book: Harry Potter: Magical Creatures Hanging Pop-Up from amazon.co.uk http://www.amazon.co.uk/Harry-Potter-Magical-Creatures-Childrens/dp/1405902051. The "photo" of the Loch Ness monster, now largely held to be a hoax, is reproduced on the PBS companion website for the video "The Beast of Loch Ness," at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lochness/legend3.html.