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The lessons of Frankenstein

2 March 2018

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel still speaks to questions about science, ethics, and society.

The Rightful Place of Science

It has been 200 years since Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is considered one of the first science fiction novels, and its influence has saturated modern culture. There were more than 130 depictions and adaptions of the novel in the 20th century alone (though, puzzlingly, the misconception persists that the monster, rather than its creator, is named Frankenstein). And scholars continue to offer new insights on the influences on and impacts of Shelley’s work.

Shelley’s latest biographer, Fiona Sampson, believes that the author based the tale of Victor Frankenstein and his monster partly on her experiences being treated for severe eczema. The treatment included swathing her arms in vast bandages and poultices that, as Sampson puts it, must have made her feel “like a monstrous appendage stitched from some other body onto her own, as the creature she invents in her first novel will be stitched together by Frankenstein.” In her In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (2018), Sampson argues that Shelley’s novel also reflects her knowledge of some of the latest scientific discoveries, such as the connection between electricity and muscle movement.

Last year the New America foundation and Slate magazine devoted part of their Future Tense series to looking at the lessons Mary Shelley’s tale can teach society, particularly scientists. Some of those discussions and essays have now been updated and turned into a book, The Rightful Place of Science: Frankenstein, edited by historian of science Megan Halpern and science studies scholars Joey Eschrich and Jathan Sadowski.

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley, in an 1840 portrait by Richard Rothwell.

Some essays in The Rightful Place of Science consider the lessons of the novel alongside Shelley’s personal story. At the time Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, had a social circle containing a large number of libertarians and humanists who argued that humanity was becoming more enlightened and that progress always resulted in a positive outcome. But Shelley’s novel, Eschrich argues in his essay “Unsettling Frankenstein,” sounds a more skeptical note and suggests that humans might not use incredible technological advances responsibly. Eschrich wonders if future scientists faced with mistakes will be transparent about their failures or if, like Victor Frankenstein, they will remain paralyzed with fear and indecision until it is too late.

Eschrich’s question seems the right one to ask. Today humanity possesses an unprecedented capability to transform entire industries and the global environment. Artificial intelligence, genetically modified organisms, and numerous weapons of untold destructive capability are being researched in startup companies, large corporations, and academia. Yet ethical training for scientists remains woefully limited.

Can scientists learn lessons from Shelley’s fictional tale that could help rectify their ethical knowledge gap? Kevin Esvelt’s chapter, “What Victor Frankenstein Got Wrong,” points out that Frankenstein saw the glory of being first but didn’t consider the consequences of his actions—a problem some Manhattan Project physicists wrestled with during and after World War II. Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer once said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.” Esvelt worries about the consequences of that “do it now, ask questions later” attitude, especially when applied to the gene-editing tool CRISPR. His solution is transparency. The flaw in Frankenstein’s technique, Esvelt says, was not being part of the larger community of scientists who could have assessed the risks associated with his experiments.

Halpern continues that theme in her chapter, “The Creature Is More Human Than the Creator.” She argues that the monster “was not dangerous until it was abandoned” and considers parallels between the monster and new AI robots. “To create an artificially intelligent robot might not be a crime of innovation,” she writes. “But to do so without embracing the responsibility for actively seeking ethical ways to use and protect the robot might be.”

1831 inside cover
Theodor von Holst provided this illustration for the inside cover of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

The Rightful Place of Science is full of thoughtful snippets, urging readers to consider the consequences of scientific advancement and the ethical dilemmas new technologies might pose. Although the collection is uneven in places and readers may want to skip a few of the essays, the book forms a nice introduction for undergraduates to some of the moral issues they will face as they enter the workforce. Fans of Frankenstein may also develop a new appreciation of Shelley’s thoughts on the success of Enlightenment science and philosophy.

It seems only appropriate to give the last word to Shelley. She saw writing Frankenstein as the point at which “I first stepped out from childhood into life”—not her personal life, but her intellectual life. Frankenstein was a marker of her place both in literature and in the discussion of the life-changing questions of her time.

Shelley’s novel, as The Rightful Place of Science reminds us, serves as a call for science to abandon childish “wait and see” naiveté and consider the consequences of scientific advances before moving forward. How many scientists will take on those ethical challenges and step out from childhood into life?

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