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“Such Monsters Do Exist in Nature”: Mermaids, Tritons, and the Science of Wonder in Eighteenth-Century Europe

  • Vaughn Scribner
Abstract

While a thick vein of scepticism marked Enlightenment thinkers’ studies, such investigations cannot be divorced from their concurrent quest to merge the wondrous and the rational. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in philosophers’ investigations of merpeople. Examining European gentlemen’s debates over mermaids and tritons illuminate their willingness to embrace wonder in their larger quest to understand the origins of humankind. Naturalists utilized a wide range of methodologies to critically study these seemingly wondrous creatures and, in turn, assert the reality of merpeople as evidence of humanity’s aquatic roots. As with other creatures they encountered in their global travels, European philosophers utilized various theories—including those of racial, biological, taxonomical, and geographic difference—to understand merpeople’s place in the natural world. By the second half of the eighteenth century, certain thinkers integrated merpeople into their explanation of humanity’s origins, thus bringing this phenomenon full circle.

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E-mail: vscribner@uca.edu
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Vaughn Scribner is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. His research investigates early American history in a global context, specifically striving to understand how early modern Britons sought to define (and redefine) their positions in the empire. He would like to thank John Parrack, Beatrice Phillpotts, Becky Saylor, Leslie Tuttle, and Lina Waara for their aid.

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