I didn’t talk about this week’s History Channel Bigfoot mockumentary Bigfoot Captured, which aired on Monday, but I should mention that the show, which mixed fact and fiction in the vein of the fabricated Mermaids and Megalodon programs on the Discovery networks, caused a number of viewers to confuse the TV movie for reality. (The program offered only a brief disclaimer.) This, in turn, caused one of the show’s participants, Bigfoot expert Jeffery Meldrum, to object to the program and explain that he had been duped into appearing as an expert on a fake show. Meldrum went on to tell the Idaho State Journal that he considered the program further evidence of the network’s descent into Ancient Aliens-style pseudoscience. “You kind of expect better, especially (considering) the History Channel, ... for a long time, has had a pretty reasonable reputation as being a solid documentarian.” This was particularly rich coming from Meldrum, who happily appeared on both Ancient Aliens and its H2 spinoff, In Search of Aliens.
After writing about the first few chapters of Matt Kaplan’s Science of the Magical yesterday, I continued reading the book, and my disappointment only grew. This was a bit of a new experience for me since I usually go into books knowing something about their purpose. This one was an accident I stumbled across, and I’m just not sure what the point of the book is. Worse, I am not confident at all that Kaplan can see past his own disciplinary bias (as a trained paleontologist) to view human storytelling as more than a literal reflection of the real world.
Chapter 3 discusses immortality, and it starts by exploring instances of sympathetic magic (without using the anthropological term), whereby ancient people thought that consuming long-lived creatures would give them longer lives. Kaplan admits this is wrong, but then compares this to scientists’ efforts to find out why creatures like turtles live so long. This creates a false correspondence since ancient people were not conducting genetic research or seriously investigating the mechanisms of longevity. However, he gives the impression of equivalence of purpose, if not method. This leads to a discussion of the transition from alchemy to chemistry and utterly irrelevant descriptions of how fertilizers work. It reads kind of like James Burke’s Connections, except that there is no attempt to tell a story.
Worse was Kaplan’s efforts to prove the legend of Mithridates VI of Pontus to be literally true. According to Appian, in Roman History 16 and Cassius Dio, in Roman History 37.13, the king took small amounts of poison to guard against being poisoned, and so when he was about to be captured by the Romans he was unable to commit suicide because his body was immune to the poison he used. Even though neither source specifies the poison, Kaplan assumes that it is arsenic based on the work of Adrienne Mayor, which lets him connect this story to completely different uses of poison among the Renaissance European nobility and a Maltese legend that fossilized shark teeth protect against poison. So, he adds calcium carbonate to a glass of wine with some arsenic and proves that the Maltese legend isn’t literally true. However, instead of accepting this, he concludes that he and the scientist he is working with must have done something wrong. What any of this has to do with Mithridates or Renaissance nobles just isn’t clear, and the whole section is a confusing jumble of half-formed ideas that sort of relate to the topic of poison—but then, to top it off, he links the whole thing to the Holy Grail as a magical inversion of poisoned chalice!
The chapter ends by noting the Methuselah lived a long time, which gives him an excuse to devote a third of the chapter to scientific research into longevity.
Chapter 4 starts by presenting a number of theories about the purpose of Stonehenge, which Kaplan then says he doesn’t care about because the ancient site makes him “feel” things, so establishing facts isn’t really important. This section serves no purpose but to introduce the concept that ancient people attributed magical powers to rocks. But he doesn’t carry the idea through, since he immediately changes course to start looking at the heavens and whether the myth of full moon madness is correct. He suspects, he says, that based on archaeological findings that South African humans around 160,000 years ago ate mussels we will someday learn that early humans evolved to detect the moon’s gravity in order to know when the tides moved and mussels could be easily gathered. He says that those humans who could sense the moon would know when the lowest tides of the month occurred, which would allow them their pick of mussels, while insensitive humans would not know when the tide went out. This sounds like a just-so story to me, since there isn’t really any reason to suspect that people wouldn’t be able to observe when the tide went out without the need for lunar gravitational detection power. His view also presupposes that early humans engaged in competition with one another for food rather than cooperating, which can’t be proved.
He speaks next of the Viking sunstones, which I covered when Josh Gates investigated them on Expedition Unknown. As I said then, the sunstones are plausibly based on a real crystals, but not yet proved to have existed. Kaplan redoes everything Gates did, based on the same source material, and the results are the same.
After this, he has no real transition at all to exploring whether the plagues from the Exodus narrative really happened. His only connection is that, like the sunstone, they were related to phenomena “from above.” Here Kaplan seems confused. He argues that the Exodus story is likely to be accurate because work done on oral epics in Yugoslavia between 1934 and 1950 showed that epic poetry could be passed on accurately across generations, suggesting that the Homeric poems were accurate reflections of more ancient oral originals. Kaplan ignores the fact that this research by Milman Parry and Albert Lord focused specifically on epic poetry and the way that the poetic meter and rhythm allowed for the retention and preservation of specific poetic elements. Instead, he falsely concludes that it proves that stories are preserved perfectly for thousands of years. The trouble is that the Exodus narrative is not an epic poem, so this material isn’t relevant to questions of its origins and transmission.
This leads him to recount a number of euhemerist explanations for the plagues, notably the Thera eruption, and to conclude that the plagues were added to the Exodus narrative from a different story. He assumes that there was an oral Exodus epic, but archaeology knows nothing of the Exodus and philology can trace the story only back to the eighth century BCE and the prophet Hosea (e.g. Hosea 11:1). So, while there was some kind of Exodus story then, the one we know is likely a literary production, almost certainly shaped after the Babylonian Exile. It’s not possible to assume an oral original identical to the received text—which, again, is not a poem. (It does contain fragments of poems, however.)
Similarly, he declares the parting of the Red Sea to be a “narrative fragment” that the “bards” wove into the non-existent Exodus epic poem, and he relates the various euhemerist explanations proposed to imagine conditions in which various bodies of water literally parted. This discounts the suggestion that parting of the sea was meant to recall the parting of the waters at the creation.
The chapter concludes with the author using the idea of weather magic as a hook on which to hang a section on modern efforts to control the weather. Once again, the purpose of the section is unclear since rain dances and weather magic neither inspired nor utilized weather control techniques like cloud seeding. The point seems only to be that modern science is essentially fulfilling the promise of magic once attributed to God, but Kaplan never really makes the argument so much as throws a bunch of ideas together based on loose collections of themes.
This chapter is about animals, and it’s just as weird as what came before. He starts by discussing Odin’s ravens and wolves and then wonders why the Vikings would think of wolves in a positive light considering wolves competed with early humans for food. There must be a scientific reason! No, there really isn’t. Zeus had his eagle, which ate our fish. Christ was the Lion of Judah, even though lions actually kill people. Animals were associated with gods for their power or their beauty, not their docility. Otherwise, we’d had gods with dogs, cats, and hamsters for pets. Kaplan, ever the rationalizer, determines that the Vikings assigned wolves to Odin because they followed wolves around and stole their kills to feed themselves. He “confirms” that this is plausible by speaking not to an expert of mythology, Nordic culture, or prehistory but to a biologist who specializes in wolves and says that it’s an “interesting” idea.
The next section talks about ravens but says nothing unique or interesting. Subsequent sections compare the X-Men to plant cloning and Spider-Man to Oscar the cat, who allegedly could sniff out terminally ill patients who were about to die and animals that are alleged to know when earthquakes are about to strike. Based on the latter he proposes—again without the slightest hint of evidence—that Disney fairy tale movies featuring animals who warn the hero of danger are based on memories of animals fleeing from natural disasters. He concedes that he can’t prove this, and he suspects that Disney simply made the whole thing up since written fairy tales lack the animal warning motif. He does not bother to check with anyone with relevant knowledge, at Disney or among folklorists, to find out.
He concludes by trying to argue that the Greeks and the Romans were right to read auguries into the flights of birds because their migration patterns might change during El Niño or La Niña events. This is a very thin thread to justify the elaborate prognostications, though the fact that Anaximander supposedly predicted an earthquake after birds behaved oddly suggests that there may be a very small kernel of truth in the observation, a bit like the way astrology preserves a tiny bit of ancient astronomical observation within a giant matrix of falsehood.
I think with the close of this chapter, I’ll stop here and save the remainder of the book for tomorrow.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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