Natalie, my daughter, began life with one eye placed centrally in her forehead. It appeared early – barely a week after her conception – in October 2002, and had things gone awry, there it would have remained, a single cyclopean orb, glowering in the shadow of a grotesque proboscis that would have grown in place of her nose.(1)
There are many explanations for what inspired the legend of the Cyclopes – the one-eyed monsters of classical mythology. These explanations invoke everything from an ancient find of mysterious dwarf elephant skulls, to the blacksmith’s habit – in the days before protective goggles – of protecting one eye with a patch. But the most likely inspiration for the story is also the saddest one. Occasionally, a human cyclops survives in the womb long enough to emerge visibly disfigured. Once upon a time, someone got a good look at what they had aborted – and wished for ever after that they hadn’t.
It happened again, not so long ago. George Gould and Walter Pyle’s indispensable volume Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine of 1896(2), includes an account of a woman of thirty-five, the mother of seven children, ‘who while pregnant was feeding some rabbits, when one of the animals jumped at her with its eyes “glaring” upon her, causing a sudden fright.’ The child’s mouth and face were small and rabbit-shaped. Instead of a nose, it had ‘a fleshy growth 3/4 inch long by 1/4 inch broad, directed upward at an angle of 45 degrees.’ Between the nose and the mouth was an organ resembling an adult eye.
Within it lay ‘two small, imperfect eyes which moved freely while life lasted’.
The disfigurement of the face was the mere outward mark of an even more collosal failure – the brain failing to divide into two delicately linked halves. So, mercifully, after about ten minutes, the child died. The mother went on to have two more children, and they were perfectly healthy.
Human beings arise, not from dust, but from stuff hardly more edifying: a gellid spittle. How from this unpromising material anything beautiful emerges – let alone anything that comprehends and communicates something of the world beyond itself – is a mystery too big to be encompassed by just one version of events. How we explain how we grow depends on fashion. It is the fashion now to talk of rules embedded, like a code, in every cell. But this, like most shorthand explanations, fosters misunderstanding. Natalie was not fashioned by rules. Nothing oversaw her growth. Genes set the conditions of the game, but it was the game itself that built her: the touch and slide of surfaces, the little chemical kisses, the partings and the reunions, each part of her tissue communicating chemically with each neighbouring part as she folded herself into being.
It was this dance, known to science as induction, that told her brain to split, that squeezed her single orbit into two, and drew two little strings of brain out to the windows in her skull, there to make her eyes.