modern science

The animated myth: Frankenstein and the reflection of scientific anxiety

“What terrified me will terrify others…” (Shelley 169).


Few works have captured the imagination of the public and produced as many adaptations, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The influence of Shelley’s classic tale of Victor Frankenstein and the consequences of careless experimentation has not only endured 200 years following its initial publication but is thriving as the linchpin of the modern cultural interpretation and depiction of science and its consequences. As Barbara Braid articulates, “Frankenstein has spurred countless adaptations, rewritings… [with] an enormous potential for inviting new readings and appropriations… most of the contemporary consumers… know about Frankenstein and his creature not because they have read Shelley’s novel, but due to [the] myriad of its renditions in [storytelling] that make this text one of the cornerstones of contemporary culture” (Braid 232).

The work is extraordinary through its mythic meaning, which is predominately understood and felt by those without significant understanding of the source material. As Braid highlights, the themes of the work are “memetic” in their “[adaptations] to changing cultural contexts” (Braid 233); the ideas resulting from the work mutate and interact with the society that initially gives them life. As a culture, we give the ideas derived from Frankenstein power and animate them to a status that transcends the original work. The fears and themes expressed in Frankenstein still haunt the modern world while the work lives on as an animated, ever-changing, myth.

Since its publication in 1818, the different ideas that have emerged from Frankenstein have shared fundamental similarities but have been continually re-purposed to reflect the present society’s scientific worries and fears. Frankenstein functions as a vehicle through which the public expresses its concerns regarding the potential consequences of scientific work and offers the scientific community a theoretical touchstone for science gone spectacularly wrong. As science writer Phillip Ball succinctly puts it, “[Frankenstein possesses a] particular potential to be reanimated, time after time, to fit and to dramatize the anxieties of the age. Like Victor, we [society] make Frankenstein in our own image” (Ball, “Frankenstein Reflects the Hopes and Fears of Every Scientific Era”).

Societal anxieties, especially those associated with science, have, and will continue to be propagated and expressed through works like Frankenstein. This collection of short essays will argue that the ideas expressed within Frankenstein are more relevant than ever before. The work, by its open-endedness, has the potential to relate different messages regarding science to its readers. Through the cultural endurance and prevalence of certain elements of Frankenstein, it can be said that the work is not merely a cautionary tale of the consequences of science but primarily an exhortation of the need to care or “nurture” the artifacts resulting from a scientific pursuit. Victor Frankenstein had coldly rejected and abandoned his creation, a scientific “artifact” of immense power and potential, which acted as the sole cause of the creature’s regression towards a life of hate and revenge. As the monster declares: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend” (Shelley 68).

Image: Occurring in 2017, the surrogate birth of these genetically identical macaque twins, the first instance of successful primate cloning, has drawn references to Frankenstein due to the possibility that this breakthrough will assist future attempts at creating human clones (Normile, 2018). XINHUA/JIN LIWANG VIA GETTY IMAGES.

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References:

Ball, Philip. “‘Frankenstein’ Reflects the Hopes and Fears of Every Scientific Era.” The Atlantic, Apr. 2017. The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/04/franken-science/523560/.

Braid, Barbara. “The Frankenstein Meme: Penny Dreadful and The Frankenstein Chronicles as Adaptations.” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, Nov. 2017. CrossRef, doi:10.1515/culture-2017-0021.

Normile, Dennis, et al. “These Monkey Twins Are the First Primate Clones Made by the Method That Developed Dolly.” Science | AAAS, 24 Jan. 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/these-monkey-twins-are-first-primate-clones-made-method-developed-dolly.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Cloned macaque twins, by Jin Liwang, 2017 (Getty Images).

modern science

Shelley and the birth of biological science

“Mary Shelley made the necessary imaginative leap, and fashioned an image of [a] science which might one day come to pass” (Turney 41).


Shelley’s Frankenstein is a monumental work that marked a major shift in literature and culture. The work was born from a dream of Shelley’s that showed an experimenter generating a living and sentient being from inanimate matter: “…I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together… Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator… His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from… [that] which had received such imperfect animation” (Shelley 168). Forming the basis for Victor’s animation of a creature from lifeless flesh, the dream also highlights a science that was only nascent during Shelley’s period: a science concerned with the elucidation and manipulation of the fundamental elements of life.

Shelley interestingly describes the work conducted in her dream as “unhallowed” and as mocking nature, relating to the traditional notion that Victor Frankenstein, and those life manipulators like him, defy nature through their scientific hubris. Among the most terrifying aspects of such a science, as it is articulated within the 1831 introduction to the novel, is the flawed human imitation of nature. The dangers of such an imitation, as described by past literary critics, is reflected in Victor Frankenstein’s “unnatural” paternal birth of the monster. Reared without a mother, and with an absent father, Frankenstein’s monster’s development leads to immense suffering for Victor, the monster, and others.

The novel’s themes regarding the manipulation and imitation of natural forces are among its most visionary and enduring aspects. Science writer Jon Turney argues that Shelley was prescient in her writing of Frankenstein through her focus upon a science which had yet to be fully established: “[Shelley] fashioned an image of a science working on the body to transform it, a science which might one day come to pass. Now that we are indeed building such a science, we can see that it has always been a part of the modern project. She saw this right at the start” (Turney 41). This notion of a body transforming science was derived from contemporary scientific influences. Erasmus Darwin—who is cited in the 1818 introduction to provide support for the events in Frankenstein (Shelley 5)—argued that life may be derived from non-living organic matter through a process known as spontaneous generation. Furthermore, the work of Luigi Galvani suggested that electricity was among the principle components to life, “Galvani… showed that electricity… could make the muscles of dead frogs twitch. [Other experiments] subsequently showed that facial grimaces and jaw movements could be evoked in recently executed criminals by passing an electrical current through their exposed brains” (Mackowiak 3). Both Galvani’s and Darwin’s theories were accepted during Shelley’s time, and indicated, along with other theories, that the secrets of life were close to being uncovered. Such research formed the theoretical foundation of Frankenstein’s underlying science and informed the nature of Victor Frankenstein’s experimental pursuits. Now in the modern day, such a science of bodily and natural manipulation has grown to maturity and offers technologies such as genetic engineering, animal cloning, synthetic organism development, and more.

Image: Biology as a distinct science arose in the early 1800s and near the publication date of Frankenstein. This was a science whose distinction was its focus upon resolving the mysteries of life. Earlier biological investigations, such as those of Darwin and Galvani, sought to determine the nature and cause of life, and had informed the science depicted in Frankenstein. This painting depicts a vivisection of a dog for physiological investigation and demonstrates how nature, even living life, became a major site of scientific inquiry. EMILE-EDOUARD MOUCH VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

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References:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Turney, Jon. Frankenstein’s Footsteps : Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. Yale University Press, 1998. EBSCOhost. http://electra.lmu.edu:2070/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzUyODU1X19BTg2?sid=48ae3d4f-385d-440f-bb22-b25be43e044e@sessionmgr103&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.

Mackowiak, Philip A. “President’s Address: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and The Dark Side of Medical Science.” Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association 125. 2014.

Vivisection of a dog, painting, Emile-Edouard Mouch via Wikimedia Commons. 1832.

modern science

A common fear: the manipulation and violation of life

“…I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (Shelley 32).


Shelley illustrates Victor as manipulating life through his research. Life, for Victor, is a mystery best understood through human experimentation: “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery… [I] determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology [life]” (Shelley 31). Evoking the traditional notions that Frankenstein is a cautionary tale against the scientific playing of God, Victor Frankenstein is motivated in his animation of the monster by god-like visions of himself: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley 39).

Victor, in these passages, is shown as being primarily motivated by the pursuit of knowledge, and by a grandiose desire to gain power and renown. These aspects of Victor reflect the work and controversies of biological scientists close to Shelley’s period. In response to the allegations that early biologists were involved in the mistreatment of animals in their pursuits, one physician offers this viewpoint in a court testimony: “…whereas medical men are constantly engaged in the study of anatomy and physiology for a humane purpose . . . there are a number of persons now who are engaged in the pursuit of these subjects for the purpose of acquiring abstract knowledge. This is quite a different thing. I am not at all sure that the mere acquisition of knowledge is not a thing having some dangerous or mischievous tendencies in it…” (Turney 43). This desire for “acquiring abstract knowledge” is one element that motivates Victor, and early nineteenth-century biologists, in their pursuit to uncover the secrets of life.

Frankenstein was published during a time where life and death, while only beginning to be understood by natural philosophers, was popularly seen as something that could be controlled. As one contemporary reviewer puts it, “[Frankenstein] has an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favorite projects and passions of the times” (Unknown, The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany). Through its acceptance by audiences during this period, the novel was connected to a growing unease over the prospects of natural philosophers gaining more powers over life. During Shelley’s time there was a marked anxiety towards the consequences of this new science, which sought to control and understand life. The violation of the natural world, and the human body, was a major fear. The idea of science manipulating and imitating natural processes was also thought unnatural, hubristic, and inherently flawed (Shelley 168). These fears and anxieties reflected during Shelley’s generation have endured into the present with the rise of modern biology. With the modern world’s ability to better manipulate, imitate, and understand life, the ideas coming from Frankenstein are more relevant than ever. Jon Turney calls Frankenstein the “governing myth of modern biology” as its ideas continue to be carried into modern contexts with the development of new biological technologies and advances (Turney 3). This fear of the “unnatural,” of scientific hubris, and of the unsanctioned manipulation of life is even more pronounced within the modern world, where the perceived threats of biological science are more tangible for both the public and members of the scientific community.

IMAGE VIA FERTILITY MATTERS.

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References:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Turney, Jon. Frankenstein’s Footsteps : Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. Yale University Press, 1998. EBSCOhost. http://electra.lmu.edu:2070/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzUyODU1X19BTg2?sid=48ae3d4f-385d-440f-bb22-b25be43e044e@sessionmgr103&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.

Anonymous. The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany: A New Series of “The Scots Magazine.” 1 Mar. 1998, https://www.rc.umd.edu/reference/chronologies/mschronology/reviews/emrev.html.

Egg fertilized in vitro,  stock photo illustration, via Fertility Matters.

modern science

A more accurate conflation? The true monstrosity of Victor Frankenstein

“Read the book and weep for those we have rejected, and fear for what revenge they will exact, but shed no tears for Frankenstein.” (Bishop 753).


Shelley writes Victor as a character made absurd through his lack of consideration for his scientific creation, be it prior and after the act of animation. Leading up to his animation of the monster, Victor is rendered myopic to his duties as a creator through his primary focus upon knowledge and glory. Despite the association as a “Modern Prometheus” (Shelley 3), Victor fails to nurture his creation like the Prometheus of Greek myth; unlike Prometheus, who creates humanity and assists his creation through gifts of fire and knowledge, Victor does not teach nor offer his creation anything beyond the act of animation. It is this negligence, this departure from the Promethean myth, that causes Victor’s animation of the monster to lead to his ruin.

Victor’s lack of nurturing is emphasized by his actions. When faced with the realities of his work, Victor chooses passivity and avoidance, often mediated through a denial of the present via means such as sleep, “I threw myself on the bed… endeavoring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness…” (Shelley 36). Victor immediately abandons his creation upon the act of animation: “…now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…” (Shelley 36). This conscious decision to leave the creature without a parent, or any caring figure, is what Shelley illustrates as the only catalyst for the creature’s development as a monster. With a parent that abhors the very existence of his sole child, that only describes his child with the likes of “devil” and “vile insect” (Shelley 68-69), the shift towards evil that the monster experiences appear inevitable.

This cruel abandonment by Victor Frankenstein, and his intense hatred of the creature, makes the public conflation of the name “Frankenstein” with a monstrous entity almost suiting. It appears that Victor Frankenstein is the true monster and the real source of the suffering that is attributed to the monster. Through the abandonment and lack of stewardship of scientific artifacts, the creation itself suffers and degenerates towards evil, causing Victor to suffer himself and lose all that he holds dear. Victor as a secret monster, and as the source of suffering, is hinted in several instances in the novel. While attempting to avoid reality through dreaming, Victor is beset with an unusual dream: “…sleep did not afford me respite from thought and misery; my dreams presented a thousand objects that scared me… I was possessed by a kind of night-mare; I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck, and could not free myself from it…” (133). Shelley illustrates the site of the fiends grasp as being inside Victor or “in [his] neck” rather than being on his neck. This choice in language insinuates that this suffering comes from an endogenous source, from inside Victor himself. An internal aspect of Victor is illustrated as being the agent enacting suffering (choking), rather than an external entity, indicating that there is more to Victor than just a victim of a science gone wrong. Victor Frankenstein’s negligence is emphasized as the root cause of the suffering that pervades Frankenstein, a fact that paints the creature as the principle victim and Victor as the true monster of the novel.

Image: In it’s original editions, Frankenstein is subtitled as The Modern Prometheus, which relates to the Promethean nature of Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the monster. Like the titan Prometheus, Victor creates a sapient being from inanimate matter, and, consequently, suffers as a result of his unsanctioned creation. However, unlike Prometheus, Victor fails to nurture his creation. His own faults are responsible for his suffering, the misery of the creature, and the death and harm that comes to others.  THEODOOR ROMBOUTS VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

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References:

Bishop, M. G. H. “The makyng and re-making of man: 2. Mary Shelley, or, the modern Pandora, and gene therapy.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 87, no. 12, Dec. 1994.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

“Prometheus”, by Theodoor Rombouts, Early 17th Century (Wikimedia Commons).

modern science

The scientific creation of the modern human

“…[Frankenstein] is no longer a ‘fantasy’… we no longer identify with Dr. Frankenstein but with his monster” (Gaylin 81).


Bioethicist Willard Gaylin, writing in the early 1970s in response to the emergent technologies of in vitro fertilization and genetic recombination, illustrates humanity as being the direct result of scientific progress: “…the biological revolution may offer relief or hasten [the] total failure [of humanity]. Unfortunately, things now move faster, and we are less sure of how to even recognize success or failure. But technology has elevated man – and there is no going back. ‘Natural man’ is the cooperative creation of nature and man. Antitechnology is self-hatred” (Gaylin 81). Through scientific progress, humanity consequently becomes a creation of science. Scientific progress, such as recent advances in medicine, have made science and technology an inseparable aspect of ourselves and our human identity. Frankenstein, a novel about science creating and influencing life, is now “no longer a ‘fantasy’” in this regard (Gaylin 81). As Gaylin writes in the context of the scientific advances of the early 1970s: “in the 20th century… we find ourselves, indeed, patching human beings together out of parts. We sew on detached arms… borrow corneas from the dead, and kidneys from the living or dead; there are artificial limbs, artificial lungs, artificial kidneys and artificial hearts…” (Gaylin 69). Like with the creation of the monster, the boundaries between the artificial, material, and human are less clear through modern scientific progress.

In pursuing his work, Victor Frankenstein sought to fundamentally change humanity. Reflecting on his personal goals prior to his animation of the monster, Victor relates to Walton that “wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death” (Shelley 23). While humanity today is not wholly prepared artificially from animal and human remains, as in the case of Victor’s monster, we are becoming less reliant on natural forces (e.g. organs, foods, processes… etc.) and are taking our lives more into the hands of science and technology. Victor’s aspiration to seek knowledge in order to allow humanity to have more power over nature (in his case, freedom from death/disease) is a notion that is also evoked by one of his professors at Ingolstadt, M. Waldman: “[natural philosophers] ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows” (Shelley 29). Science, in Frankenstein, is illustrated as a pursuit that allows humanity to no longer be subordinate to natural forces, such as death, earthquakes, and lightning.

As Frankenstein’s featured natural philosophers indicate, among the primary goals of the scientific pursuit is an alteration and empowering of humanity so that humans can rise above the natural constraints that limit them. With scientists acquiring and applying their “new and almost unlimited powers,” within generation after generation of industrialized humans, humanity, and what it means to be human, will invariably change. This continuous shifting of the nature of humanity is reflected in prior and recent scientific advances and has made today’s human existence more heavily associated with science than it ever has been. Like Victor’s monster, our modern lives are a creation resulting from a scientific pursuit of knowledge. Through future technological development will come a greater possibility of change for humanity and a greater entanglement of the human identity, and life, with technology.

Image: The cult science-fiction thriller Gattaca illustrates a future where the genetic editing of humanity is routine. Through this scientific breakthrough, the film shows that humanity experiences a cultural and biological shift where humans are assumed to have a “curated” genome that enhances their abilities well past those of “normal” humans. The recent development of the CRISPR/CAS9 gene editing system has made some of the ideas of the film more likely to come to fruition. Like Frankenstein, the film illustrates a scenario where science can manipulate and uncover aspects of life in order to produce a new form of humanity: the bio-engineered human versus the human/animal amalgamation that is Frankenstein’s “monster”. GATTACA VIA COLUMBIA PICTURES.

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References:

Gaylin, Willard. “We have the awful knowledge to make exact copies of human beings” in Readings in Biology and Man. Ardent Media, 1973.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

GATTACA face portrait photography, Columbia Pictures, 1997.

modern science

The duty to take care of scientific products

“Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind” (Shelley 68).


Among the elements that inspire scientific work is the drive to better humanity and to free humans from suffering and natural constraints. Victor’s ambition to “pour a torrent of light into our dark world” (Shelley 39) through an elimination of death and disease is not inherently wrong and reflects this scientific drive. Traditional and public interpretations of Frankenstein have focused upon the dangers of Victor’s scientific hubris, his violations of what is natural, and see the suffering within the novel as being caused by a science that has overstepped its bounds. As romantic literary critic Anne K. Mellor writes: “[a]ppropriately, Nature prevents Victor from constructing a normal human being: his unnatural method of reproduction spawns an unnatural being, a freak of gigantic stature, watery eyes, shriveled complexion, and straight black lips” (Mellor 239). Victor’s “unnatural” scientific methods have been illustrated as not only being inherently wrong, but as the primary reason for why he, and his creation, were fated to suffer.

This interpretation, reflecting aspects of Frankenstein’s mythic meaning, has fed into some of the modern fears over new biotechnologies. For instance, anti-GMO activists have labeled food derived from genetically modified organisms as dangerous “frankenfoods” and members of the public, and scientific community, have criticized and called biotechnologist J. Craig Venter a “Frankenstein” for his achievement in developing the first synthetic microbe in 2016 (Cohen, “The Horror Story that Haunts Science”). Like the conclusions of Mellor and other literary critics regarding Frankenstein’s work, some of the public, as evidenced by their references of the novel, are convinced that new “unnatural” scientific breakthroughs are both inherently wrong and dangerous. This interpretation of Frankenstein, furthermore, reflects some of the dominant elements of the modern Frankenstein myth: science has the power to violate, manipulate, and imitate what is natural, and, through this, will invariably bring humanity harm.

This focus upon the danger and “unnatural” aspect of science, however, is inherently dangerous and misses some of the novel’s key points. As established in a previous essay, the suffering of Victor, the monster, and others, was the result of Frankenstein’s failure in his duties as a creator. The monster makes it clear to Victor: “Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind… I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (Shelley 68). The monster was not made evil, neither by Victor nor by the “unnatural” scientific methods that were employed. Victor’s failure in fulfilling the needs of his creation prevented the monster from staying “benevolent and good” and becoming “virtuous.” Following this, the call to action for humanity should not be a rejection of “unnatural” research products such as GMO crops and synthetic microbes, but rather a drive to nurture and care for these scientific artifacts. Science and technology has become an inseparable aspect of the humanity. A blind rejection and abandonment of these emergent “unnatural” technologies will go against the themes of Frankenstein and will amount to not only collective self-hatred, but also suffering. As French sociologist Bruno Latour writes, “We confuse the monster for its creator and blame our sins against Nature upon our creations. But our sin is not that we created technologies but that we failed to love and care for them. It is as if we decided that we were unable to follow through with the education of our children” (Latour, “Love Your Monsters”).

Image: With knowledge (scientific achievement) comes great responsibility. Science, in the modern era, has been thought  analogous to the fruit of knowledge: through it, humanity is permanently changed and removed from its previous “natural” state. Even without a discussion of the benefits or consequences of science, it is clear that our current lives are intertwined with science. We create scientific artifacts, which in turn, create who we are. Following this, it is clear that there must a duty towards the care and nurturing of these artifacts, lest they lead to consequences for humanity. This view evokes one of the major themes of Frankenstein, suggested through Victor’s failure in ensuring the future of his creation: love and take care of the creations or “monsters” of science. PAINTING BY ROY YORKE CALNE VIA UK SCIENCE MUSEUM.

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References:

Cohen, Jon. “The Specter of Frankenstein Still Haunts Science 200 Years Later.” Science | AAAS, 8 Jan. 2018, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/specter-frankenstein-still-haunts-science-200-years-later.

Latour, Bruno. “Love Your Monsters — Why We Must Care for Our Technologies As We Do Our Children.” The Breakthrough, 2012, The Breakthrough, https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/love-your-monsters/. Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.

Science, Fruit of Knowledge, painting, Roy Yorke Calne via UK Science Museum. 1994.

modern science

Consequences of rejection

“There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me… from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species…” (Shelley 95).


A blind revulsion towards our modern creations, just as in the case of Victor Frankenstein, is what actually poses harm to humanity. With respect to modern genetic engineering, ill-informed activism and disdain towards GMO crops due to their presumed “unnatural” genesis in a laboratory is costing lives. These crops, like other scientific artifacts, are now a fact of existence and a part of our lives. To deny them, is to cause ourselves to suffer. Take the recent example of golden rice, which is a genetically modified crop made to produce beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. First effectively developed in 2002, golden rice was deemed safe and was poised to help solve the global issue of vitamin A deficiency. Sixteen years later, in 2018, golden rice has yet to be commercially introduced due to activist and government resistance. As with other GMOs, golden rice was deemed a “frankenfood” by activists because it was seen as “unnatural,” “synthetic,” and thus, inherently harmful for humanity and the environment. Because of its capacity to alleviate worldwide vitamin A deficiency, disruptions of efforts to introduce golden rice, since 2002, have led to losses of millions of lives, and have led millions more to suffer from preventable blindness (Wesseler and Zilberman 724).

Golden rice is indeed a “Frankenstein’s monster” but not in the manner that its opponents articulate. This crop is not a “Frankenstein’s monster” because it is unnatural, or destined to cause harm, but rather because it has a need to be cared for, nurtured, and thoughtfully applied. As in the case of the monster, the condemnation of golden rice, and other scientific artifacts, can make matters worse for humanity. It was only following the monster’s rejection by the De Lacey’s, his idealized guardians and friends, that he decided to make humanity suffer: “No; from that moment I declared everlasting war against [humanity], and… against him who had formed me” (Shelley 95). Frankenstein’s creation only chose violence because of the prejudiced negligence and hatred that he experienced from others. His existence even held possible benefit and promise for mankind, as he was inherently both benevolent and powerful. Similarly, scientific creations like golden rice hold significant promise for humans but only if we collectively choose to shed our prejudices and take care of them. Like Victor Frankenstein, we, as a species, have duties to our scientific creations. Violations of these duties, as the mythic story of Frankenstein illustrates, causes consequences through our repetition of Frankenstein’s greatest offense. Given the modern intertwining of humanity, technology, and science, a lack of scientific stewardship is bound to not only affect the scientists that create the artifacts, but also the entirety of humanity.

Image: Protesters gather in a rally against the use of genetically modified crops such as golden rice.  Movements and activism against scientific advances such as genetically modified food crops indicate that the fear of science manipulating life is still more than relevant today. Senseless hatred and rejection of artifacts like these, like the hatred of Victor Frankenstein and humanity towards his creation, will not bring benefit. IMAGE VIA FINANCIAL TIMES.

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References:

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Wesseler, Justus, and David Zilberman. “The Economic Power of the Golden Rice Opposition.” Environment and Development Economics, vol. 19, no. 06, Dec. 2014, pp. 724–42. Crossref, doi:10.1017/S1355770X1300065X.

World Health Organization. “Micronutrient Deficiencies.” WHO, http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/. Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.

Golden rice protesters, photograph, via Financial Times.

modern science

Conclusion: Hatred and abandonment is the true threat

“Shall I respect man, when he contemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and, instead of injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union… I will revenge my injuries…” (Shelley 102).


To conclude, Frankenstein holds a mythic status in today’s culture where its ideas have been continuously adapted to the modern fears and debates over science, its products, and its consequences. The work created an immediate emotional connection with the scientists and members of the public during Shelley’s time. Frankenstein depicted a science of life manipulation that saw its birth through the work of contemporaries, such as Erasmus Darwin and Luigi Galvani, to Mary Shelley. The nineteenth century would see the origin of biological science, but since then, an unprecedented mastery, understanding, and control over nature has been achieved. The work played with the period’s fears of science overstepping its bounds through its violations of what is sacred/natural, and it is these exact fears that have persisted to the present day. Through the twenty-first century emergence of more advanced means of controlling nature, such as genetic engineering, it appears that Frankenstein’s more dominant, and enduring ideas, is its cautioning against a wanton manipulation (violation) of life. This enduring thread is a mythic theme that now lives outside of the novel, with many individuals being exposed to it without having read the original work. Its prevalence can be felt in modern scientific debates over issues such as genetically modified crops, where activists against the technology see them as a violation of nature and, thus, the products are appropriately labeled “frankenfoods,” “frankencrops,” or “frankenseeds.”

Upon a close reading, however, it seems that this cautionary element of Frankenstein is not its most relevant, or even salient, point. Frankenstein, above the rest of its mythic meanings, is a call to action for scientists, and members of the public, to nurture and take care of scientific artifacts. The true cause of suffering in the work was not the monster’s “unnatural” birth, nor Victor’s hubris, but rather Victor’s abandonment and humanity’s subsequent rejection of the monster. This is illustrated explicitly in the novel through the creature’s descent into violence. Born benevolent and good, the monster only became monstrous through the neglect, hatred, and abuse of others. With Victor Frankenstein being the one to abandon the monster, the case can be made that he is the true monster of the novel. It is suggested that Victor’s actions alone are responsible for the all the suffering that the creature enacts. Following that the creation’s nature is good and that Victor’s intention was to help mankind through the animation of the creature, it seems that the story is not primarily about warning against “unnatural” science.

The biggest problem to be found in Frankenstein is a collective one. Victor Frankenstein, as a creator, has a duty to the monster that he later fails due to his disgust towards the creation. Other humans, such as the De Lacey’s, reject the creature immediately through a similar prejudice against his appearance. This shared revulsion, or rejection, of the monster is the novel’s true root of suffering. Humanity today acts as both the creator and created with our existence enmeshed with technology and science. A modern rejection of technological artifacts, like with Frankenstein’s monster, is bound to result in negative consequences. Like all creators, we have a duty towards our creations that should never be violated. If we coldly reject our creations and fail to care for them, it can be guaranteed that they will not serve us. Like in the case of Frankenstein’s monster, if our creations are neglected, denied, or abused, they may even make matters worse for us. Physician and medical ethicist MGH Bishop illustrates this primary theme clearly: “Read the book and weep for those we have rejected, and fear for what revenge they will exact… (Bishop 753). With a future of further and greater technological advancement, the haunting of science by Frankenstein is bound to endure.

Image: In confronting the artifacts that we make through our nature as creators, humanity needs to form a just response. Some creations may appear to be indicative of the darker aspects of humanity, or seem to be violations of nature. Whatever the basic emotional response to scientific products are, the worst situation is the harboring of hatred for scientific products, and their subsequent rejection. As creators we have a duty to see that what comes out of science is cared for and managed, and a violation of this has consequences. Image depicts a stylized Frankenstein’s monster. Illustration by CRAIG & KARL, via Science Magazine.

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References:

Bishop, M. G. H. “The makyng and re-making of man: 2. Mary Shelley, or, the modern Pandora, and gene therapy.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 87, no. 12, Dec. 1994.

Frankenstein, CRAIG & KARL, via Science Magazine. 2018.