Sunday, April 27, 2008

The modern sideshow

Each week, it seems, pictures of a new human oddity surface on Yahoo. Such interest in the plight of a result of natural human curiosity, and shows the evolution of society’s treatment of such people. In ancient cultures, someone suffering from a rare mutation might have been subject to a wide range of treatment, from worship to death, since various civilizations interpreted the appearance of such unusual deformations in their midst as anything from a curse from the devil to a blessing from God.

In the 1800s sideshows became a common sight in America, as circuses traveled the countryside, displaying “human marvels” to curious spectators. The Siamese twins Chang and Eng were two of the earliest examples, and soon afterwards P.T. Barnum made Tom Thumb the star of his famous exhibition.Sideshows remained popular for until the mid-20th century, when people suffering from these genetic oddities were finally granted dignity (and pity), rather than being mocked and humiliated.

Today, “sideshows” consist of people with extensive (voluntary) body-modification, like tattoos and piercings. The people who were once ridiculed now often live in anonymity, and/or attempt to have their problem surgically fixed. When they do decide to have surgery, it often makes world news. Their pictures are splayed across the Health or Odd News sections of popular websites, and quickly make the rounds on the internet. Often they are children, which can make it particularly heart-wrenching.

Given the absence of sideshows from general society for several decades, most of us never got the chance to see such incredible examples of genetic mishaps in person. I, for one, never would have believed it possible to have a 50lb tumor in your face or be born with two sets of facial features. I would have dismissed such claims as exaggeration or pure science fiction. But globalization and modern media have made it possible for journalists to find out about and record the existence of such extraordinary people, and provide photographic proof to the world. Hopefully making such unfortunate cases of human malformation public will give us more credulity when confronted with outlandish claims. Theories like intelligent design cannot account for people like Huang Chunsai or Lui Hua, whose bodies are far from intelligently designed. We are an animal species like any other, and are not (yet) immune to the abstruse and wretched whims of nature.

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