“I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation up on lifeless matter.”
– Dr Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein (2)
Frankenstein is a science fiction novel published by British author Mary Shelley in 1818 that has become an integral part of modern day culture. It follows a Swiss scientist named Dr Victor Frankenstein who becomes obsessed with alchemy and the idea of creating life. His indelible curiosity gradually leads him down the path towards atrocious experiments in the name of science, to the point where he creates a creature – a ‘monster.’
This novel, which has captured our imaginations since its release almost two centuries ago, has led to several famous film adaptations and has become one of the cornerstones of the Horror genre even to the present day.
The inspiration for this novel came from the early 1800s when scientists awed audiences with their ability to use electricity to stimulate the nerves of dead animals, a process called galvanism (1). In 1803 the body of murderer George Foster was attached to a large battery, and witnesses tell us that ‘the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened’ (3). It was during this era that science started to take over the reins, stepping onto its pedestal as the fountain of knowledge.
Interestingly, the subtitle of Frankenstein is ‘Modern Prometheus’ (3). Prometheus is the Greek God who brought knowledge to humanity, and later paid for his ‘crime’ through eternal torment. In a similar fashion, Victor Frankenstein brings further knowledge to humanity through his obsession with the life sciences, leading to his creation of a ‘monster’ that ultimately torments him to his dying day. The novel, despite being written at a time when science was just learning to walk, is as relevant today as it was when first published. Yes, it may just be a work of fiction, but the deeper warnings contained within its fine pages speak to us in a way that no scientific journal can.
Frankenstein reminds us that the humanities are the seat belt for the sciences. They have been there to remind us of our morals when all we want to indulge in is our supreme power as human beings. They remind us to stay humble, to think and to question, and not merely to set fire to everything that surrounds us.
History is littered with examples of how scientific discoveries can lead us astray. From the splitting of the atom, which led to the creation of nuclear weapons, to the rise of technology, which has led to the dehumanization of everyday life. But of course, this is a simplification. Science has also given us so much that we now take for granted: organ transplants, heating, the latest iPhone, the very roof over our heads. Science has given us our healthy years, filled with food, shelter, safety and comfort. What Frankenstein highlights is our human desire to go further; to extend our years beyond our imagination, so that not only do we never die, we never grow old either. This hubris is perhaps part of human nature.
What Frankenstein teaches us is that we must take responsibility for our creations, and remember that every gleam of hope also betrays a darker path; ultimately, it is not the ‘monster’ that leads to his masters’ demise, but the lack of empathy and responsibility that is displayed. By continually digging deeper and deeper, searching for a way to transform the cells that create us and the organs that give us life, we must not forget the power that lies in our hands, the ever-human desires of greed and selfishness that can take over our quest.
“I might in process of time, renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption”
– Dr Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein (2)
Many may question how relevant such warnings are in the present day. Perhaps these messages do not apply to our times. Very few of us would turn our backs upon science, casting our technologies aside and turning to the fire to heat our food and the rock to give us shelter. The issues that Frankenstein brought up, of using nature to bring about life, can be found within any hospital across the world. The use of the defibrillator – a device that uses electricity to shock the heart back into rhythm – could be described as the answer that Frankenstein worked so hard to find – to bring people back from the dead, to introduce life so to speak. Would one call this abominable?
Perhaps we are being unfair to Frankenstein – looking at ourselves as medical students and doctors, how many of us would not do the same as him; sitting hours within a cramped room, reading textbook after textbook, trying discover the intricacies of the human body: how does it breathe, how does it sleep, how does it eat, how does it live? Isn’t this what we do every day – delve deep into the human body so that we can learn how to shock it back to its original state?
We can choose to see both ourselves and Dr Victor Frankenstein as lights that shine onto pathways of future knowledge, discovering new cures and assembling fresh treatments along the way. But we must remember that we cannot rely on science alone to answer all of our problems. Ultimately, science cannot work in a lab by itself. It must work within the context of our greater society, and it must be made morally accountable for its actions. By continuing one’s endeavors out of pure selfishness and greed, one may tread down a path from which there is no return. In the end, it is the monster created from Frankenstein’s obsessions that kills him, and this can serve as a warning to us all.
- Brown, A.S. 2010. How early experiments with electricity inspired Mary Shelley’s reanimated monster [Online]. Available at: https://www.insidescience.org/content/science-made-frankenstein/1116 [Accessed: 8th January 2016]
- Shelley, M. 2010. Frankenstein. William Collins.
- Pires, V.M. 2013. Shelley’s Monster: A Lesson on Scientific Hubris [Online]. Available at: http://piresphilosophy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/shelleys-monster-lesson-on-scientific.html [Accessed: 8th January 2016]
Frankenstein by Khánh Hmoong