It’s aliiiiiive….!

Bristol’s ever enterprising Festival of Ideas team have put together a couple of days of talks, theatre and films to mark the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (she visited Bristol, don’t you know).

I’m chairing this discussion on ethics, biotech and medicine, largely because I wrote a book about Frankenstein, not quite so long ago. I argued then that new bioethics and old stories often get tangled up and, indeed, that Frankenstein has been the governing myth of public debates about applied biosciences for all those 200 years. In the 21st century, as we debate CRISPR and mitochondrial donation, I reckon that’s still largely true. Here’s a piece I wrote back when Frank’s feet, as it was known in the Turney household, was published summarising the argument. It’ll be interesting to think what may have changed on April 23rd. 



“It’s alive!” exults the near hysterical scientist at the climax of the creation scene in the 1931 film Frankenstein. And we know that his success,bringing to life a body of his own design, is the beginning of his downfall. It is the most memorable of hundreds of such scenes in plays, books and cinema and TV productions that have repeated the basic elements of Mary Shelley’s classic story, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. After nearly two centuries, our cultural obsession with her image of life creation shows no sign of waning. What the author called her “hideous progeny” has been transformed from a minor novel into a full-blown myth. And as we enter what many predict will be the century of biology, the Frankenstein myth looks set to come into its own.

The more successful we become in turning life science into technology, the sharper grows our ambivalence about where that technology may lead. Frankenstein gives shape to that ambivalence in ways we seem unable to do without. But although the story’s appeal is stronger than ever in the age of cloning and the human genome project, it is a poor aid to discussion about the necessary social control over these real scientific developments.As we try to foster debate about the technologies coming out of bioscience laboratories – try to decide which techniques to curb and which to promote – we must find more satisfying images to shape our discussions. In doing so, we may be able to move away from the logjam between scientists and the public about the consequences of scientific progress.

To explain the endurance of the appeal of Frankenstein and his creature, a good move is to try to isolate what has survived in all the renderings of the myth since 1818. The story, for all its familiarity, is still frightening, because it depicts a human enterprise that is out of control and that turns on its creator. That much carries over from earlier, including Biblical, myths about the acquisition of knowledge. But Frankenstein is about science. What is more, the science is pursued, if not always with the best of intentions, then for motives we can comprehend. In the most striking re-tellings, the myth is never a straightforward anti-science story. There is something admirable about Victor Frankenstein in the novel, about “Henry” Frankenstein in Whale’s film, even about Peter Cushing’s ruthless Baron Frankenstein in Hammer’s films, and certainly about Kenneth Branagh’s fresh-faced idealist in his misleadingly titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Even so, our sympathies are always torn between Frankenstein and his monster. The Frankenstein script, in its most salient forms, incorporates an ambivalence about science, method and motive that is never resolved.

The retention of science in all the later derivatives of the story is the most striking feature of the myth. In the original text the creation of the monster is accomplished in a scant 30 pages, and scientific details are few. After the “brilliant light” of Victor’s idea dawns, we never learn more than how he eventually “collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of life into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet”. Yet those first 30 pages supply the seeds of almost all of the images derived from Frankenstein that appear in so many variations in later stories about science and scientists.

They include models for the scientist whose good intentions blind him to the true nature of his enterprise: “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!” Victor proclaims. And so say all of us mortal readers. But Victor also personifies the scientist as Faustian knowledge seeker – “the world was to me a secret which I desired to divine”, he says and recalls that “none but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science” – or as a narrow materialist: “On my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. A churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life.”

There are also hints that science has some drive of its own, outside the scientist’s will, that eventually overwhelms him. “Natural philosophy,” Victor reflects, “is the genius that has regulated my fate.” Amid all the simplifications, deletions and re-elaborations of the original that have occurred, the identification of Victor as a scientist has remained. Science gives him his success, and that success gives him power over life. Even though his character was drawn before biology was a separate discipline, Frankenstein is a proto-biologist.

The myth’s endurance testifies to a deep disquiet about scientific discovery in general and the science of life in particular. It is a disquiet that Shelley tapped into remarkably early in the development of modern life science. In fact, what we now call biomedical science has always been important in shaping the modern attitude to science. We have always been prisoners of the body, victims of mortality, and we desire the power that biology might give us to relieve these burdens.

This is easy to establish more recently. Medical and biological stories have long accounted for much press coverage of science. Look at a major newspaper from early this century, the San Francisco Chronicle, say, and you find front-page stories on radical surgical procedures, the possibility of choosing the sex of a baby and proposed scientific techniques for prolonging life. These show the early convergence of news values and the territory of biomedicine. Biological research and medical practice mean birth, sex and death; suffering, disease and disability.

Shelley’s earlier achievement was to unite these concerns with the Faust myth to create something new. Goethe’s contemporaneous Faust, for example, is preoccupied with operating on the world, with physical and social transformation. In Goethe’s new world, man will be transformed but only through all the other changes Faust brings about. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is set on transforming humans directly. If he can discover the secret of life, he can father a new species. To do so, he will experiment directly on the body.

Here, Shelley intuited the power of a threat that would come to seem graver as time went by. In a world where industrial and technological change was already apparent, one sphere of existence was exempt. The natural world, although it could be reshaped by physical onslaught on the land, was not yet open to technological manipulation. The forms and varieties of creatures, the hierarchy of species, the biological imperatives of existence, were fixed points in a changing world.

The human body, too, was an unchanging ground for experience of other changes. This does not mean that experience of the body or ideas about its constitution did not change; but the body itself was not seen as changing. The dead body had been anatomised for two centuries, in pursuit of a science of the interior that made a deep impression on Renaissance and early modern culture, but that science was still largely descriptive. The still-living body was not yet subject to science’s probings. But Shelley made the necessary imaginative leap and fashioned an image of a science working on the body to transform it. Striving to create a story to “awaken thrilling horror”, she understood that the best horror story would be rooted in the power that we most desire and most dread: power over the body. Frankenstein focused attention on that prospect at the beginning of the modern era. We still feel the story’s pull because that power is now ours for the asking.

One can look back over the history of public responses to the laboratory dissection of life and identify a series of episodes when biologists’ work evoked wide public responses. They include the adoption of vivisection by Victorian physiologists, a technique at the heart of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, and claims by Jacques Loeb in the United States just after the turn of the century that artificial fertilisation of sea-urchin eggs meant that laboratory creation of life was on the horizon. They cover what commentators dubbed the “biological revolution” of the 1960s, with the advent of the Pill, heart transplants and the cracking of the genetic code. And they extend to today, with our concerns about cloning, in vitro fertilisation and the potential of gene therapy. One thing they all have in common is that the Frankenstein myth is invoked to dramatise the choices that are posed by new techniques. Sometimes it appears only obliquely, as in the recurrent suggestion in the early days of molecular genetics that the discovery of the DNA structure amounted to uncovering “the secret of life”. More often it is more clearly stated, as in the persistent habit of cartoonists of depicting the results of genetic manipulation as composite creatures, patched together from the body parts of different species.

The invocation of the myth expresses real concerns but is no help in deciding how to deal with them. It poses an unreal choice between an unfettered science, with unspeakable consequences, and no science at all. When what we need are ways of choosing which science to promote, which to curb. Shelley offered no predictions about science’s future, but she did identify something at the heart of our response to science. Her story about finding the secret of life became one of the most important myths of modernity. Now that the secret of life appears to be that there is no secret, we need to move past that myth in our debate about how to regulate biological technologies. (1998)


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