Frankenstein reclaimed

According to recent media headlines, ethanol derived from biomass is a 'Frankenstein Fuel', human DNA inserted into a cow's egg delivers 'Frankenstein's Monster', and even the sub-prime mortgage disaster is a consequence of 'Frankenstein Finance'. E&T asks: what exactly does this much-abused journalistic cliché mean?

Mary Godwin had the idea to write 'Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus' when she and the superstar poets Percy Shelley (Mary's future husband) and Lord Byron were on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, sheltering in their villa while a storm raged outside. 

In an 1831 edition of her famous novel, she described her moment of inspiration, a dream in which "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion."

Shelley was fascinated by the science of her time, and was familiar with the work of Luigi Galvani in the 1780s, during which he found that the muscles of dead frogs twitched in a life-like manner when subjected to an electrical charge. 

In some experiments he inserted copper hooks into frogs' spines and wired these grim specimens to the iron railings of his balcony garden, exploiting the static charge from thunderstorms. "Perhaps a corpse could be reanimated," Shelley speculated. "Galvanism has given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth."

The image handed down to us by Shelley and her countless imitators is of mankind sinning against nature by attempting to take control of the barrier between life and death. But is this really the moral crux of her tale?

Frankenstein's crime

Leaving aside the superficially sensational incidents in the blood-spattered narrative, the key moment comes down to just one sentence, uttered by Victor Frankenstein as he tells his story to an amazed friend. "Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."

Appalled at the lumbering appearance of the thing he has stitched together out of fragmented corpses, he rushes out of his laboratory and tries to abandon what he has made: a living humanoid that only becomes aggressive because of its despair after being betrayed by the one person in the world it should have been able to trust. 

It exacts a murderous revenge, but without any of the grim satisfaction that we might expect, for this is not a 'monster' but a lonely sentient creature whose heart has been broken.

Frankenstein is not necessarily an anti-scientific novel. Although its precocious 19-year old author sometimes has trouble making up her mind, she repeatedly stresses the superiority of rational, disciplined investigations over alchemy and magic. Her Frankenstein is definitely a scientist, not a necromancer. 

Although he learns to his cost "how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge," the actual experiment he conducts, grim though it may be, is not his pivotal crime. Until that ghastly moment when he tries to turn his back on what he has done, he is a sympathetic character, ambitious to "bring light to a darkened world". What scientist doesn't share his perfectly reasonable desire to "renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption"?

Admixed embryos

In May last year, the UK parliament passed a historic vote allowing the creation of human-animal hybrids, or 'human admixed embryos'. Scientists want to acquire stem cells taken from embryos because they have the capacity to turn into various forms of organ or tissue.

The shortage of available human eggs can be overcome by inserting the nuclei of human cells into empty animal eggs, usually those of cows or rabbits. The embryos that subsequently develop inside those eggs, it has to be stressed, contain purely human DNA.

The concerns surrounding this work focus on stem cell researchers as practitioners of some kind of unhallowed art. Talking just before the vote, Conservative MP Edward Leigh voiced the feelings of many people. "Scientists are creating what is ethically quite wrong, something which is animal and human, and that goes against every kind of moral teaching we have ever known," while Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the president of the Bishops' Conference of Scotland, said that the research was of "Frankenstein proportions".

But medicine has always transgressed 'against nature', first by introducing drugs into our bodies that would not normally be part of our diet, then by cutting us open during surgery, and finally by inserting components into us - kidneys, lungs, hearts - taken from the bodies of the dead. Donor cards are the routine expression of Frankenstein's craft: a hybridisation between the realm of the living and the flesh of corpses. What might once have seemed horrific is now regarded as a force for good.

It doesn't follow that human admixed embryos are wrong just because they sound like something out of 'Frankenstein'. Many thousands of people hope that breakthroughs in stem cell research can - in Frankenstein's words - "bring light to a darkened world", specifically by treating Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, or multiple sclerosis and retinal degeneration, not to mention kidney failure, liver disease and a dozen common cancers.

'Frankenstein' tells us that it's not the hybrids we create so much as the attitude of mind that we bring to them after their manufacture that counts. Running away in "breathless horror and disgust" won't help us deal with the consequences of stem cell technology, let alone reap any of the potential benefits.

Physics and Faust

If Frankenstein is the anti-hero of biology, then physics has its own antihero. The 'Faust' legend crops up in many Renaissance tales of alchemy and magic. The character of the over-reaching Dr Faustus is thought to have been inspired by a real alchemist who toured European cities in the early 1500s, dazzling audiences with clever conjuring tricks. Some royal courts apparently welcomed him, while the Christian church authorities branded him a charlatan.

According to some accounts, he was accused by his enemies of molesting children, and may have died in some kind of explosion in around 1540. Sixty years later, the myths and rumours inspired the English poet Christopher Marlowe to write the play 'Dr Faustus', telling the tale of his pact with the Devil, and the exchange of his soul in return for knowledge. But the most epic version of the story, completed in 1832, was created by the German writer and philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

We meet Faust as a clever but disillusioned academic. "I have studied philosophy, medicine and the law," he laments, "Yet here I stand, poor fool, no wiser than before." His practical experiments also leave him unsatisfied. He cannot discover the secrets of nature "with levers and with screws", nor "with handle, wheel and cogs and cylinder." Yearning for some hands-on experience of life, Faust makes a bargain with Mephistopheles, a charming incarnation of the Devil. Faust will surrender his soul if Mephistopheles can grant him one shining moment of happiness.

Faust spends many disastrous years chasing earthly pleasure, ruining innocent people's lives along the way and finding nothing but despair. Even Mephistopheles gets fed up with him. However, at the climax of the tale, Faust tries to mend his ways and put himself to good use. He conceives a plan to reclaim land from the sea. Blind and old by now, he hears Mephistopheles' army of ghouls digging a grave for him. He thinks it's workers beginning his great project. In a flash of pure joy, he imagines that he can "open room to live for millions" and create "a free soil with a free people".

In that moment, Mephistopheles reckons he's landed his catch, because he's made Faust 'happy'. Goethe's twist, however, is that a benevolent God decides Faust is worth saving after all, because he's planning a better future for humankind. He may be using powerful and dangerous unnatural forces, but he wants to ease poverty and create new communities. Just as in 'Frankenstein', the moral of the Faust fable isn't that science is wrong. It's what you do with it that counts.

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