Revisiting the lessons of Frankenstein

By Julian Koplin & John Massie

The story of Frankenstein came to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in a nightmare. It was a miserable, wet summer in 1816, and Mary Shelley was visiting the poet Lord Byron with her sister, Claire Clairmont, and her soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They spend much of the summer trapped indoors by the rain, where they passed the time reading ghost stories. After spending many evenings confined in this way, Lord Byron suggested that they each try their hands at writing a horror story of their own.

Shelley first dreamt of her monster on what was probably a dark and stormy night. The weather that summer was, in Shelley’s words, wet and ungenial. Mount Tambora had just erupted; volcanic ash clogged sunlight across the world, and global temperatures plummeted. Lord Byron’s poem Darkness – written in part about the eruption’s aftermath – gives a sense for the weather at the time:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.

The poem manages to become even more miserable as it continues. At its denouement humankind – by now severely starved of light – blinks forever out of existence.

These were the conditions under which Shelley and the others sat by the fire, exchanging ghost stories. And these were the conditions under which Shelley dreamt the image of her monster – which she describes as a “hideous phantasm of a man”, brought to life by a “pale student of unhallowed arts.” This student is Victor Frankenstein, prodigious young scientist who never gets around to thinking through the risks of assembling living beings from mixed body parts.

At the time, scientists like Luigi Galvani had recently shown how electricity could be used to ‘reanimate’ corpses. Presumably Frankenstein attempted something similar. Shelley, however, leaves these details vague. In her narrative, Frankenstein is too circumspect to describe his methods; he worries that revealing too much will enable others to repeat his mistake.

Shelley does leave some hints about Frankenstein’s thought process. While Frankenstein studied chemistry at University, he spent the years prior steeping himself in ancient works of natural philosophy. The natural philosophers made more than a few mistakes – for example, Pliny the Elder recorded that ear wax cures poison, that bear cubs remain formless until they are licked into shape by their mother, and that menstruating women can arrest storms by stripping naked. Yet it was through reading these outdated works – and by combining their insights with his studies in modern chemistry – that Frankenstein gleaned inspiration for his scientific breakthrough.

Two hundred years have passed since Frankenstein was first published. Since then, Frankenstein’s monster has become a ubiquitous figure in popular culture. The monster also features regularly in debates about scientific advances, where he is generally trotted out as a symbol of the dangers of meddling with nature. (Consider the use of the term ‘Frankenfood’ as a derogatory label for genetically modified crops, or the description of He Jiankui as ‘China’s Frankenstein’ after he announced his role in creating the world’s first gene-edited babies.) On this reading, Frankenstein is essentially a warning against messing with the natural order. Frankenstein brings disaster to himself and his loved ones; so too might we. Ambition and hubris breed monsters.

But there is another lesson embedded within Frankenstein, and it is one that we think deserves closer attention. Victor Frankenstein didn’t just display hubris. He also displayed a complete lack of concern, and failed to accept any responsibility, for the being he created. Frankenstein was obsessed with achieving his breakthrough to the point he neglected to consider how his creation ought to be treated, should he succeed in bringing one to life. When he eventually succeeds, Frankenstein promptly abandons his creation. This decision had tragic consequences not only for the people the creature harms, but also for the creature itself; Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ was left alone in a world it was ill-equipped to navigate, and where its own personhood would never be recognised by the humans it interacts with. Frankenstein made his most serious moral error when he neglected to consider his moral obligations to the being he was creating.

The prospect of raising the dead remains squarely in the realm of science fiction. Scientists, however, have recently gained unprecedented powers to create and manipulate life, and these advances are raising difficult questions of moral status. It has become possible to prod human stem cells so they develop into something resembling a human brain or a viable human embryo. It has become possible to create human-animal chimeras whose brains are partly or wholly composed of human cells. And it has become possible to put human brain genes in monkeys so that their brain development – and cognitive ability – partly resembles our own. In a development reminiscent of Frankenstein’s breakthrough, scientists have even managed to partly ‘revive’ the brains of disembodied brains of pigs hours after the animals were slaughtered.

These strands of research bear some resemblance to Frankenstein’s own. In each case, scientists are creating entirely new forms of life. In each case, they face difficult scientific questions about what kind of mental life (if any) the entities they are creating might achieve, as well as difficult ethical questions about these entities’ moral status. And in some cases, scientists are confronting these questions in the absence of robust regulatory oversight; many of the novel entities described above do not fit neatly within existing regulatory frameworks. Scientists working in these areas face similar ethical issues to those Frankenstein flagrantly failed to anticipate. By reflecting on Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old narrative, we hope to keep these questions in focus – and to make progress toward resolving them.

Paper title: Lessons from Frankenstein 200 years on: brain organoids, chimaeras and other ‘monsters’

Authors: Julian Koplin1,2 & John Massie3

Affiliations:

  1. Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Victoria, Australia
  2. Biomedical Ethics Research Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
  3. Department of Respiratory Medicine, The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia

Competing interests: None declared.

Social media accounts of post authors: @JulianJKoplin

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