Human “monsters” and reproductive mysteries

We often forget how recently humans have understood the basics of their own biological origins. Well into the nineteenth century, confusion abounded about the connection between human reproductiuon and other forms of animal reproduction, as well as the roles played by both parents in the origins of new individuals. Since Gregor Mendel’s genetic researches were not available to the scientific community until around 1900, even Charles Darwin had to admit only the fuzziest sense of how acquired characteristics might be passed on from parent to offspring. In addition, “monsters” and “freaks of nature” posed serious problems for any religious belief or scientific theory that demanded rigid consistency on the part of the natural system. Bird fanciers knew that pigeons could occasionally produce two-headed offspring, and horse breeders saw a few foals born with an extra leg, but the appearance of humans with confusing racial characteristics, much less conjoined twins or other developmental anomalies, caused fear and anxiety about the “souls” or the “purpose” of such beings. Few people wanted to believe that humans came into existence in the same way as chickens or lizards; even fewer wanted to admit that the process of “soul-making” was partly “genetic.” As a result, strange theories abounded: “freaks” were seen as divine punishment for the sins of the fathers (or mothers); the mother’s (or father’s) state of mind at the moment of conception was said to determine the sex or the personality of the child; mysterious “liquors” were described mixing in mysterious ways with a human egg, human homunculi (fully formed sperm creatures), or combinations of matter and “spirit” to produce a new human animal.

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