Science in Shelley's Frankenstein
Length: 1795 words (5.1 double-spaced pages)
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Science in Shelley's Frankenstein
In Shelley's Frankenstein, it's interesting to use the text to ask the question, whose interest's lie at the heart of science? Why is Victor Frankenstein motivated to plunge the questions that bringing life to inanimate matter can bring? Victor Frankenstein's life was destroyed because of an obsession with the power to create life where none had been before. The monster he created could be seen as a representation of all those who are wronged in the selfish name of science. We can use Shelley's book to draw parallels in our modern society, and show that there is a danger in the impersonal relationship that science creates between the scientist and his work. It seems to me that Shelley was saying that when science is done merely on the basis of discovery without thought to the affect that the experimentation can have, we risk endangering everything we hold dear.
When describing the monster he had created, Frankenstein says:
No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived. (Shelley, 235)
This was Victor's response to the reaching out of the monster towards Victor on the night of his creation. Victor, who for months had worked on this creation, was suddenly confronted with the results of his scientific pursuit. He had labored night and day in an effort to do something that had never been done by man before. He had figured out the scientific way to bring life to that which was dead, so he blindly went forth and did it. He never really stopped to think what the consequences of his action might be. He knows that the creature he is making is ugly, but he never wonders what will happen to the creature after he is brought to life as a result of that ugliness. The monster is made oversized so it's easier for Victor to work on him, yet no thought is taken about how the creature might feel about such a form.
Victor doesn't even heed the advice of his father, and remains consumed with his science. In the words of the popular film Jurassic Park, he got so busy wondering if he could do something that he forgot to think about whether he should do something. This is a main theme of Shelley's novel. Frankenstein never stopped to consider the consequences of his action on his fellow human beings, or the creature he was creating.
We can see what Shelley was talking about in our day. We create Nuclear power and weapons in the name of science, ignoring the costs of radiation poisonings and places like Hiroshima. We genetically alter animals without regards to the effect on the rest of the food chain. We create ways to bring water to southern California, ignoring the fact that we're destroying another habitat in Colorado. We continue to produce vehicles powered by combustion engines when we know they destroy the environment. The examples go on and on, and they show no signs of slowing down. Shelley had an insight on the future when she wrote Frankenstein because she saw that we couldn't trust science alone to solve our problems. It is up to us to make educated decisions about the way science should be used.
What we can take from Shelley's novel and from it's modern day parallels is that humanity needs to develop a sense of scientific patience. In our world everyone seems to be concerned with the quick fix. We want all the good results right away, without any of the consequences. Victor Frankenstein behaved exactly the same way. He wanted all the glory of bringing life to the dead without facing the ugly reality that the act might bring with it. We cannot and should not restrict the areas of learning that science can open for us, but we should adopt a careful, patient approach to answers. We have to judge whether we are doing something in the interest of greed, or power, or prestige, or if we are doing it instead to better the world we live in and help those around us. Scientists seem to get caught up in the ways to do things, but they need to start examine the reasons why they do things.
Let me give you a modern day example that hits too close to Shelley's pattern of Victor Frankenstein. In a recent article from CNN.com there is an article about an Italian scientist named Dr. Severino Antinori. This doctor recently held a press conference announcing that the first human clone will be born in early January of next year. The article implies that Antinori might not be making reliable claims, and that most of the scientific community is skeptical about Antiorni's truthfulness because he has not come up with any proof. But this was not is the most disturbing part of the article. The piece quoted several renowned scientists, and they all seemed to be saying the same thing. Michael Le Page, the biomedical news editor of New Scientist magazine said, "If anyone cloned a human baby I would be surprised if they would make an immediate announcement." Le Page also said that if a cloned baby was made public, and that a year or so later showed signs of deformity or retardation the scientist would look, "a bit silly." It absolutely boggles my mind that these scientists are talking about a human life. They're talking about causing the retardation of a human child, and the only consequence they mention is that the scientist might look "a bit silly." The scientists say that even if a human baby had been cloned, the public would be the last to know, because the researchers are worried about their image.
John Kilner, the president of a U.S. think tank called The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, was quoted saying
While there are well-founded reasons to be skeptical of Dr. Antiorni's claim that a woman is due to give birth to a clone soon, he reminds us that there are those who would continue this dangerous, unethical quest. Such experiments subject human beings produced through cloning to a high risk of death and deformity. The best way to ensure that cloning is not pursued is to pass a comprehensive ban on human cloning. The United States should do this as soon as possible and continue to press the case for a comprehensive ban treaty in the United Nations. (CNN.com)
Despite vast social and ethical questions looming about the question of cloning, there are scientists who rush ahead anyway. Whose well-being are they thinking of? Obviously not the babies they are creating, or they would wait until we understand more about the process.
We repeatedly see this type of pattern in the scientific research methods of our day. The term science seems to create a distance between an individual and what they are doing. They blindly pursue and use knowledge without waiting for the wisdom necessary to wield it. It is important to seek after knowledge, but it is more important to know when to use the knowledge we have. Shelley saw this in part. She had a severe anti-science bias, but it is not science itself that destroys our humanity. It is the choices we make that lead our species into self-destructive and harmful systems of action.
In a quote from "Enemies of Promise" Michael Bishop states that scientists have a responsibility to work openly with the public for the good of all.
We scientists can no longer leave the problem to others. Indeed, it has always been ours to solve, and all of society is now paying for our neglect. As physicist and historian of science Gerald Holton has said, modern men and women "who do not know the basic facts that determine their very existence, functioning, and surroundings are living in a dream world...are, in a very sense, not sane. We [scientists]...should do what we can, or we shall be pushed out of the common culture. The lab remains our workplace, but it must not become our hiding place." (Bishop, 242)
It is up to us as a society to become more interested and aware of the advances science is making, as well as to encourage and promote scientists to be more open about their experimentation. Only when we take steps to work together, slowly and without a "quick fix" mind set, will we be able to function for the good of everyone.
Victor Frankenstein, like Dr. Antinori and his contemporaries, did his work in the dark. He hid his progress from humanity, and did things that were at that time socially and ethically immoral. He robbed graves, he ignored his family, and he conducted forbidden experiments, and he did it all without telling anyone. The side-by-side comparison of Dr. Frankenstein and modern scientists are fairly disturbing, but the answer is still reachable if we take action now. We have to write our lawmakers and elect men with scientific patience. We have to show our own leadership that we care about the ways scientific advancement is attained, and that we are willing to pay the cost of time, so that we can all be sure of the consequences of scientific actions.
Frankenstein is a novel approach to a concern that should be more important in our daily lives. We have to take a moment and ask ourselves, when we are experimenting in the realm of science and technology, whose interests do we have in mind? How will these advancements affect society, and most of all, what harm could this creation cause? Then we'll have a society more prepared to shoulder the responsibility that Victor Frankenstein so willingly rushed into. He looked at his scientific advancement with shame and horror. But if we make the changes in our society that need to be made, we can look at what we have done with pride and surety that our creation made this life better for everyone.
Bishop, Michael. "Enemies of Promise." The Presence of Others. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruskiewicz. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's, 2000, 242.
"Experts wary of human clone claims." CNN.com Nov. 27, 2002. http://www.cnn.com/2002/HEALTH/11/27/italy.cloning/index.html (Nov. 29, 2002).
Shelley, Mary. "Frankenstein." The Presence of Others. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruskiewicz. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin's, 2000, 235-236.