Mutants, human or otherwise, historically were defined as those individuals whose appearance or functional capabilities lay beyond the boundaries of the perceived “normal.” Synonymous words include monsters, freaks, and paranormals. Today the terms mutant and mutation refer more commonly to specific alterations at the genetic level that give rise to our full spectrum of phenotypic diversity, including infinite minor variations such as eye color and nose shape. In the strict biological sense, all humans are mutants. This entry is limited to a review of the greater extremes of morphological variations such as the dwarfs, hunchbacks, conjoined twins, savants, and others who have provoked fascination, fear, and the interest of scholars from the earliest epoch.
Originally, the study of the monstrous was known as teratology. More recently, this term has been limited to mean the study of birth defects, thereby removing elements of the mythical or magical. Importantly, however, not all mutants arise merely from congenital events. Freakish forms may also result from accident (any disfiguring trauma) or illness (advanced leprosy). They may be a result of toxic exposures to chemicals (phocomelia from thalidomide) or excess radioactivity. Freaks may also be self-made via procedures such as elective surgery and tattooing. They may also be created unexpectedly, as from an operative procedure gone awry or via the new and unpredictable frontier of transgenic manipulations.
What, then, does it mean to be “abnormal”? The definition is both chronologically and culturally dynamic. The contexts of religion, science, and philosophy all inform the socially constructed ideas of deviance. Thus, the history of societal attitudes toward mutants reflects the myriad cultural influences that are so important to anthropology.
Monstrous races and beings have been cited since antiquity. Greek, Scandinavian, and Asian mythologies rendered tales of beasts with fantastic skills and/or outlandish proportions. Debate over the origins of these creatures has often focused on whether the images might be based on some remote fact, on pure fancy, or perhaps on both. Pliny the Elder, in his influential book Natural History, catalogued hundreds of bizarre creatures culled from the existing texts of the times. The Cynocephali, for example, were a race with dog-faced heads on human torsos. Could these animals have derived from crude descriptions of real humans with exaggerated facial slopes, hypertrichosis, or elongated noses? Alternatively, many of Pliny’s other eclectic entities might well have sprung simply from a vivid imagination and an interest in a good story.
During this pre-Christian era, most true birth deformities were ascribed to the supernatural, and explanations abounded. Abnormal infants could be thought to be the result of an inauspicious copulation, perhaps involving the descent of an incubus, or merely of bestial relations. Even if the fertilizing union were pure, however, a developing fetus might be altered, positively or negatively, by environmental influences such as eclipses, comets, and floods. A related concept, propagated through the next several centuries, was the theory of maternal impressions. According to this theory, a trauma or fright to the mother would then transfer to the embryo. Even self-induced maternal imagination or dreams might have an effect. Later investigators soon discounted these beliefs, although the understanding of teratological nutritional and toxic exposures (e.g., thalidomide, alcohol) has advanced.
The emergence of the powerful influences of Christianity, and subsequently of Islam, led to religious explanations for the monstrous. A polydactylous newborn might be considered demonic but by that time might also be considered a “prodigy” and taken as a sign of God’s universal wisdom and dominance. Theological arguments about predeterminism, as espoused by St. Augustine, had obvious implications for embryology. Galen’s writings during this time had special influence among both Arab and European thinkers by implying that nature represented God’s will and purpose, so that a mutant could be considered divine. Deformity came to be interpreted as either sacred or profane, or as either heroic or deviant, based on the cultural context.
This period also saw the idea of freaks as religious or political omens. Perhaps the most famous example is the monk-calf as published by Martin Luther and Philippe Melanchton during the 1500s. Their monk-calf was possibly a fabrication, but it was nonetheless widely heralded as a portent of the corrupt decline of the Roman Catholic Church. A few years earlier, the fall of the besieged Italian town of Ravenna had been attributed to the birth of a deformed infant, the notorious Monster of Ravenna. Armand Leroi suggested that the monster might have been an example of what is today understood as Robert’s syndrome, but whatever the true condition, the implication for the city’s defense was clear. Both of these incidents helped to spread the idea of monsters as religious symbols among the population at large.
The Renaissance brought to Europe a new sense of objectivism that allowed dramatic breakthroughs in teratology. Scientists and natural philosophers began to seek out and collect mutants. The increasing skills and curiosity of anatomists led to the first comparative dissections. The well-known French surgeon Ambroise Pare published De Monstres et Prodigies in 1573. He made one of the first attempts at systematic categorizations, although his classifications included both religious and natural domains. Many other descriptive tomes during this period allowed the mutants to be increasingly interpreted as variations within the sum of nature rather than as exotica from beyond. The emergent concept of humanism also began to reduce the religious and symbolic burdens of deformity.
Scientifically, the study of mutants was restructured at the turn of the 18th century by the investigations of Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. This French anatomist performed several experiments to reproduce deformities by various means and correlated his theories with numerous dissections. The major contributions of his work were twofold. First, he initiated a rigorous taxonomic approach to his subjects that was carried out further by his son Isidore. Second, because he was a contemporary of Chevalier de Lamarck, Etienne’s ideas about biological development corresponded with the concept of transformism, presaging Charles Darwin and the broader controversies of evolution.
In the social context, the industrial age was also allowing mutants to acquire a new identity as entertainers. As early as the 1500s, freaks could be either purchased or paid by eager intellectuals. The market for paranormals subsequently grew and was exploited in the West by people such as P. T. Barnum. Barnum skillfully sought out mutants and promoted them to the masses. He made household names out of Prince Randian, General Tom Thumb, and many others. The sideshows galvanized the public’s sense of mystery and wonder, and Barnum capitalized on his ability to equate strangeness with fear. As a consequence, he helped to perpetuate a powerful stigma of disability, even though many of his employees lived to enjoy both respect and wealth. The effort to bring the disabled back to the community mainstream continues today and has been the basis of many legal protections in the United States such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The economic opportunity afforded by the performance stage also led to a rise in the so-called “fake freaks.” These were able-bodied individuals who masqueraded as mutants in return for cash. Many viewers became suspect of the cheap ruses being employed, and the popularity of many shows suffered. The gradual disappearance of the freak shows followed, ostensibly due to public disgust and concern over exploitation of the performers. Yet many regulars had few meaningful options to earn a living. Critics have asked whether or not the true impetus for closures was merely the need to remove a taboo that modern audiences were uncomfortable in viewing.
The convergence of the new science of genetics with the growing debate of evolutionary theory set the stage for the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Eugenics became especially popular in Germany, Britain, and the United States. In this context, the mutants were by this time evaluated on the basis of their potential contribution to the “gene pool” and overall betterment of society. Freaks increasingly became a marginalized group and were even persecuted in the name of “negative” eugenics. Laws were passed to limit reproduction, immigration, and intermarriage outside of an Anglo-Saxon ideal. Eventually, by the late 1920s, the racist connotations of the movement had been discredited and the more onerous restrictions had been lifted.
The explosion of genetic science has provided the latest paradigm for teratology. Many phenotypes can now be explained by genomic models, even if the mechanism of change still is not completely understood. Global increases in mobility and communication have lessened the importance of cultural freaks but also have raised new forums for examination. For instance, how do some humans attain previously unknown levels of performance? Why can some people climb to the summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, consistently hit high triple C on the trumpet, or speak 22 languages? Answering these questions about “functional mutants” involves the sorting of physiological characteristics from training effects or from features of mental discipline. Yet the causal web is no less complicated than the search for genetic influences, for example, on a man with fragile X syndrome.
Many cultures now also contend with rising trends of self-made freaks. The availability of potent drugs, such as anabolic steroids and synthetic growth hormone, has encouraged the pursuit of being taller, stronger, and/or faster. Sophisticated surgical techniques mean that there is always some other feature that can be altered. The French artist Orlan has undergone serial cosmetic surgeries in the name of art, employing the operating theater as her artistic medium. Instead of mutants such as Joseph Merrick (the “Elephant Man”) struggling to live within the societal norms, we see average people going to great lengths to make themselves stand out in a society. More than ever, the line between the normative and the exotic has blurred and continues to raise questions about the cultural values of form, beauty, and diversity.
- College of Physicians of Philadelphia. (2005). Mutter Museum of Philadelphia. Available:
- Le Guyader, H. (2004). Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: A visionary naturalist (M. Greene, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Leroi, A. M. (2003). Mutants: On genetic variety and the human body. New York: Viking.
- Pare, A. (1982). On monsters and marvels (J. L. Pallister, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1573)
- Thomson, R. G. (1996). Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body. New York: New York University Press.