"Frankenstein" and tampering with nature

From the 1831 revised edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published by Colburn and Bentley, London.

Frankenstein by English novelist Mary Shelley: with philosophy, literature, science, and history, Shelley speculated how humans would attempt to use scientific progress to tamper with nature as far back as 1818. Frankenstein and his rejected monster remain central to debates about fetal tissue research, life extension, human cloning, and artificial intelligence. In the story, Victor Frankenstein builds an artificial, intelligent android from slaughterhouse and medical dissection materials. Like other Romantic pieces of English literature, Shelley confronted nature as man addressing the issues of science and the Enlightenment ideal of how to use power responsibly. But how did a novel from over two centuries ago become a central piece in contemporary bioethics discussions? Through a history overview, we understand the real monster – ourselves.


Shelley called it “A Modern Prometheus” in referencing that the heat and electricity used to power Frankenstein’s monster were similar to the heat the Titan Prometheus gave to his own creations. It also refers to 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s warnings against “unbridled curiosity” after inventor Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of electricity in the 1750’s. Shelley’s Frankenstein monster is sentient, yet hideous, so it faced existential crises of why it was created in the first place. It referenced the philosophical crises of Prometheus. Alongside this, Italian physicist Luigi Galvani discovered dead frog legs’ muscles could twitch when struck by an electricity. Shelley specifically noted Galvani’s investigations, but never mentioned electricity used to create FrankensteinKnowing the limits of what we can create continue to serve in debates about genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

The relationship between Frankenstein and his monster grows tenuous through the novel. The monster realizes his own grotesque nature and begins to wonder how he can achieve happiness like any other human being. During one confrontation, Victor Frankenstein directly cursed his creation as he spoke:

Why do you call to my remembrance, circumstances, of which I shudder to reflect, that I have been the miserable origin and author? Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light! Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you! You have made me wretched beyond expression. You have left me no power to consider whether I am just to you or not. Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form.

The monster responded with:

Thus I relieve thee, my creator. Thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor. Still thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion. By the virtues that I once possessed, I demand this from you. Hear my tale; it is long and strange, and the temperature of this place is not fitting to your fine sensations; come to the hut upon the mountain. The sun is yet high in the heavens; before it descends to hide itself behind your snowy precipices and illuminate another world, you will have heard my story and can decide. On you it rests, whether I quit forever the neighborhood of man and lead a harmless life, or become the scourge of your fellow creatures and the author of your own speedy ruin.

The monster’s eloquent response shows his forceful, yet gentle response. His domineering nature is only part of who he is, but his efforts to appear sincere and calm make him more trustworthy so that Frankenstein can create a female partner for him. 

It was only until the latter half of the 20th-century when scholars from medicine and science began picking up on the novel’s ethical themes. The explosive history of genetic engineering had caused citizens from all fields to raise concerns. “The Frankenstein myth is real,” said Columbia University psychiatrist Willard Gaylin in a 1972 issue of The New York Times Magazine. At that time, U.K scientists had recently cloned a frog. Scientists began speculating how close we were to human cloning. Gaylin, who was also coo-founder of the world’s first bioethics think tank, the Hastings Center, speculated researchers could soon perform in vitro fertilization such that scientists could select genetic traits of the offspring. In similar dark themes of Frankenstein, artificial placenta and surrogate women could replace pregnancy and childbirth of other individuals. Though Victor Frankenstein resorted to slaughterhouses and medical dissections, we have many more resources. This comparison suggests that, as we rely on technological advancements, may be able to address the issues that Shelley predicted. These biological replacements raise questions of what right humans have to make such adjustments to giving birth. Gaylin continued to write in the New York Times Magazine that, “When Mary Shelley conceived of Dr. Frankenstein, science was all promise…Man was ascending and the only terror was that in his rise he would offend God by assuming too much and reaching too high, by coming too close.”

Scientists may have begun contemplating ethics, but it didn’t stop researchers from making progress. By 1973, biologists Herbert Boyer of the University of California at San Francisco and Stanley Cohen of Stanford University developed recombinant DNA techniques for genetic engineering. It allowed scientists to edit genes across species. In 1975, 150 scholars and bioethicists gathered at the Asilomar conference center in Pacific Grove, California, to devise an elaborate set of safety protocols under which gene-splicing experimentation would be allowed to proceed. The mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, declared in 1976 that the City Council would hold hearings on whether to ban Harvard scientists from starting genetic engineering experiments.

“They may come up with a disease that can’t be cured—even a monster,” Mayor Alfred Vellucci warned. “Is this the answer to Dr. Frankenstein’s dream?” In 1977, after six months of discussing these issues, a body of scholars voted to proceed with the research, despite Vellucci’s opposition. Cambridge’s passion for genetic engineering continued for decades. Today there are over 450 biomedical businesses in the Cambridge area. Alongside the passion, though, the ethical issues lingered. The insidious themes of Shelley’s novel, direct or indirect, persisted as well. With each discovery came an alarm to contemplate its effects.

Dolly’s taxidermed remains at the National Museum of Scotland

In 1997, Scottish embryologist Ian Wilmut made history with the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep. That same year, U.S. President Bill Clinton warned of human cloning. Clinton emphasized the humanistic and spiritual values in these controversial techniques, and banned federal funding for human cloning research. Experiencing a sort of disgust and fear similar to Victor Frankenstein, bioethicist Leon Kass, too, expressed a warning that this sort of disgust represented a “deep wisdom” in his New Republic essay in the same year. Repeating the themes of manufactured humans and a sort of Frankenstein monster abomination that may result, mankind’s fears took control. Kass even cited a “Frankensteinian hubris” of these techniques. The science continued, though, as did the fears. 

In 1978, U. K. scientists created the first “test tube baby,” using in vitro fertilization. By 2017, the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology reported almost 7 million children conceived through this method across the world. These methods included selecting traits and using surrogate egg donors. Unwarranted backlash against genetically modified food, though, dominated. Despite scientifically inaccurate campaigns about “Frankenfoods,” researchers have created hundreds of safe biotech crops. These foods such as golden rice yield more nutrients and resist disease. Topsoil erosion has decreased by forty percent since the 1980’s due to bioengineered herbicide-resistant crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In this case, the Frankenstein story yields unnecessary, unfounded fears. Writers would even describe human engineered “Frankenbabies” and “designer babies” using similar terminology. 

The motives and purposes for this technology become even more muddy. While it’s not immoral to believe in the goal of fighting disease, it’s also important to remember that modified humans are not monsters in the literal sense of FrankensteinVictor Frankenstein’s cursing of his monster isn’t quite the way we perceive these modified offspring. Whatever comparison or argument we draw from these stories, we still create humans. They’re capable of speech, thought, and other forms of judgements as anyone else it. Proponents such as transhumanists criticize the bioethical concerns as keeping us from achieving these biotechnological gifts. 

Understanding the ways mankind has tampered with nature since the early days of science can provide us with a deeper, nuanced portrayal of these fears. If we don’t adhere to these concerns, we may find ourselves becoming more like the scientist Victor Frankenstein, the true monster. 

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