Oct. 26, 2012

The Science of Monsters

by Matt Kaplan

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At their most basic level, monsters represent fears held by society, fears associated with dangers perceived in the surrounding world. These fears have a powerful evolutionary history by encouraging people to flee instead of fighting suicidal battles. When ancient hunters encountered a saber-toothed tiger by accident, they ran. When the human ancestor Homo erectus caught angry cave bears by surprise, it ran. When chimpanzees and bonobos, the nearest genetic relatives to modern humans, encounter large predators in the wild, they run. While Hollywood heroes have made running away distinctly unpopular on the silver screen, every single actor who has ever portrayed a hero who stood his or her ground against some abominable terror comes from a long genetic lineage of cowards who fled in the face of danger. That is why they are here to act today. If their ancestors had fought against monsters far more powerful than themselves, as Hollywood heroes do all the time, their lineage would have been destroyed by predators long ago. Fear, in short, keeps people alive. But fear can also go too far.
Recent work in animal behavior has revealed something fascinating: There are personality types in animals. Among fish in a single species, there are adventurous individuals, ready and willing to take risks, and there are more cautious and timid individuals, fearful of doing anything that could put them in danger. Similar variations in personality are starting to be found in birds and mammals too. A recent study led by Kathryn Arnold at the University of York revealed that when greenfinches were presented with brightly colored objects in their food, there was considerable variation in how long it took each bird to eat. When intriguing objects were attached to the birds’ perches, a similar variation was found. Some birds quickly flew to explore the new toy while others stayed away.
Being courageous or curious undoubtedly presents serious dangers. Ongoing studies indicate that fish with more daring personalities are more likely to nibble on bait on the end of a hook and risk-taking rodents more commonly end up in traps set by researchers. Yet having a personality that predisposes an animal to take risks can yield rewards. Courage can lead an animal to investigate previously unexplored locations where food is present, or it can lead to the discovery of well-hidden nesting areas that have yet to be found by any other members of the species. Such discoveries can lead to better health and better breeding opportunities for the courageous animal that allow for its courageous genes to be passed along more readily to the next generation.
Whether some humans are genetically predisposed to be more adventurous than others remains to be determined, but there clearly are some people who ultimately are more willing to take risks. Make no mistake, the instinct to flee from danger is still deeply rooted in every person’s brain, but some of us are more willing than others to go to places associated with danger. Just as with daring animals that find resources by taking risks, it is logical to assume that more adventurous humans have historically made the same sorts of gains. For this reason, monsters may be serving a valuable purpose in society. By representing key fears and allowing these to be discussed and explored in a safe environment, monsters might be making it feasible for these fears to be more effectively prepared for and ultimately faced, so the benefits of being a courageous individual can be more readily reaped. Like lion cubs play-fighting in the safety of their den, monsters may be allowing threats to be toyed with in the safe sandbox of the imagination.
So if monsters are present in society for both pleasure and mental practice for future frightening interactions, what happens when our fears are overcome? What then?
To a certain extent, danger should function as the life essence of monsters. Once a perceived danger is dispelled, this essence is destroyed and the beast becomes extinct. It may continue to live on in fiction as a fossil of its former self or as a mere creature of interest, but not as a monster with all of the terror that comes with such status.
Fears have changed a lot since the dawn of humanity, and with these changes have come alterations in the pantheon of monsters that lurk in our world. The Minotaur is no longer with us, but aliens are. In a sense, monsters, while strictly the stuff of fantasy, experience evolution at a rate that is in stride with the pace of human understanding of the surrounding world. Science, the empirical testing and exploration of the world, which is about as seemingly unrelated to monsters as can be, is both responsible for their birth by discovering new environments where they might be living and the cause of their destruction through the ultimate revelation that they cannot possibly be real.
That many monsters have risen and fallen throughout the ages is clear. What is less clear is which specific fears these monsters stood for and how long these fears actually lasted. An exploration of fear’s mask, the mask of the monster, seems an excellent way to find out.
As it happens, this has really screwed up lots of biological research. We have spent decades “thinking” we could get a reasonable sense of what animals are like by setting traps in the wild and then studying the animals that get caught. But if the animals that get caught are only the most daring individuals (or the most foolish) in a population, they are hardly giving us a reasonable sense of how a species behaves!
Excerpted from Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite:  The Science of Monsters. Copyright © 2012 by Matt Kaplan.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Matt Kaplan is a science journalist, and a regular contributor to The Economist. He has also written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Nature, Scientific American, Science, BBC Wildlife and The New York Times. When not chained to a desk, Kaplan travels the wilds of the world as part of a London expedition group. He lives in London.
Author photo by Tristan Horner
About Matt Kaplan

Matt Kaplan is the author of Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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