How Frankenstein could save the modern world

Icon: Frankenstein’s monster has been featured in more than 50 films since 1910.

What can Frankenstein teach modern scientists? For 200 years, the tale has gripped readers. As humans gain greater powers to control life, many say the book still contains a vital message.

Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley’s classic story Frankenstein was first published. It became a sensation, inspiring countless films and plays — not to mention plenty of dodgy Halloween costumes. But one thing that lies at the heart of the tale is a deep anxiety about the dangers of science.

In the book the brilliant Victor Frankenstein dreams of unlocking the “mysteries of creation” by single-handedly bringing a person to life.

He scavenges some body parts and builds a giant hodgepodge humanoid, successfully sparking it into existence. But as his creature wakes, the doctor is overcome by its monstrosity — struck down by “breathless horror”.

The beast soon escapes, setting in motion a tragic tale of murder and revenge. In retelling this story, Victor Frankenstein gives us a warning: “Learn from me… how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.”

Despite this message being over two centuries old, some think that it is now more vital than ever.

Humans are developing ever greater powers to create and edit living things. Take genetic engineering. In recent years the invention of a gene-editing tool called CRISPR has opened up a world of possibilities, as well as dangers.

According to one of its developers Jennifer Doudna, the technique allows scientists to edit or delete genes in “virtually any living plant’s or animal’s genome”. Many uses have been predicted: from curing cancer, to engineering super intelligent humans.

But Doudna concedes that it may also have “unintended consequences”. For example, in a recent test scientists used CRISPR to cure blindness in mice. However, the procedure also caused over a thousand unforeseen effects on the animals.

And it is not just biologists experimenting with life. Computer scientists are creating ever smarter artificial intelligence (AI) which, according to some, could one day become self-aware just like humans. Others may hope this never happens, like Stephen Hawking, who warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”.

But should we heed Frankenstein’s warning about the dangers of science?

Creating chaos

Arrogance is our downfall, some say. Dr Frankenstein was doomed because he tried to play God. In modifying our genes or creating super intelligent AI, we make the same mistake. The difference is that the extinctions and worldwide chaos which could follow will not be confined to books, but will happen for real.

Great ambition leads to great progress, others respond. Sure, genetic engineering and AI are not without hazards. But nothing great was ever achieved that was risk free. What is more, the potential rewards which scientific progress brings easily outweigh the slim chance that things will go wrong.

You Decide

  1. Is Frankenstein the greatest horror monster?
  2. Does science do more harm than good?

Activities

  1. Now it is your turn to devise a truly modern ghost story. What monster would feature in the tale? What messages would the story have about modern society? Write down an outline for the plot and share with your classmates.
  2. Watch the first link in Become An Expert — it is a clip from the 1931 film Frankenstein. Old films can often give us clues about what societies in the past were worried about. Keep an eye on the symbolism of the scene and listen carefully to the dialogue. How do you think the film uses the Frankenstein story to reflect the fears and anxieties of its audience?

Some People Say...

“There’s a Frankenstein’s monster in all of us.”

Richard Roxburgh

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Mary Shelley started writing the novel when she was just 18 years old as part of a ghost story competition with poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. According to the Open Syllabus Project, Frankenstein is now assigned in more American college classes than any other novel.
What do we not know?
How big an impact genetic engineering and artificial intelligence will have on human society. As of 2017 CRISPR was part of 20 human medical trials, mostly taking place in China. While there is much speculation about sentient AI, it has not yet been developed and it is not certain whether it is possible.

Word Watch

First published
The book was initially published anonymously, with only 500 copies printed in the first edition. Mary Shelley’s name appeared on the second edition published in 1822.
Frankenstein
The name “Frankenstein” refers to the monster’s creator rather than the creature itself. In the novel the monster is referred to with words such as “wretch”, “monster”, “creature”, “demon”, “devil”, “fiend”, and “it”.
CRISPR
The process works by essentially unzipping and precisely cutting out strands of DNA. This process disables the gene, or leaves space for new DNA to be inserted.
Genome
The complete set of genetic information contained within an organism.
Scientists
Research led by Kellie A. Schaefer, with findings published in the paper, Unexpected mutations after CRISPR–Cas9 editing in vivo.

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