Frankenstein: the monster’s shadow

This summer I have attended, and spoke at, two interestingly related events. The first was an academic conference in Rome celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the second was a conference in Berlin marking the 10th anniversary of the Deutscher Ethikrat or German Ethics Council. I contributed, as Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, to a roundtable discussion of the latter conference’s theme: ‘Human Dignity in Our Hands – Challenges from New Technologies.’

Why are the two events related? It is true that Frankenstein’s fictional monster was created in Germany, and also the case that Victor Frankenstein is educated in, and chooses to challenge, classic European Enlightenment ‘natural philosophy’ and its view of the proper limits of practical knowledge. However, the real link lies in the way that Shelley’s novel – due in some part to subsequent cinematic simplifications– has been understood as a prescient warning about the dangers of abusing science in such a way that truly dreadful outcomes result. The Ethikrat’s theme addresses this concern in terms of the importance of protecting and promoting human dignity in the face of new technologies.

Victor Frankenstein is conventionally accused of playing God, that is of usurping the role properly reserved to a divine being of creating life and in doing so, of creating a life that wreaks murderous revenge on its creator. Yet the charge of ‘playing God’ is more rhetoric than serious criticism. There are many things that medical science allows us to do now that would previously have been thought possible only through divine intervention. We are also now well used to forms of artificial reproduction that permit individuals who otherwise could not have children to be procreators.

The real failure of Victor Frankenstein is not that he creates the monster, but that he fails to discharge the duties of a parent. The bitter complaint of the monster is that he was born benevolent and happy, but has been made miserable (both in the sense of unhappy and in that of being morally despicable) by the physical form he was given and by the subsequent neglect of his creator. Even Victor recognizes the merits of that charge. This comparatively neglected theme of Frankenstein – on the duties of responsible procreators – has considerable salience in the evaluation of genome editing.

But there is obviously another theme in the novel, that of what it means to be human. Victor responds to the murder of his brother with the thought that ‘nothing in human shape could have killed the fair child’. The monster is not human both in appearance and in its amorality.

The challenge of some new technologies may then be to cause us to re-think and re-evaluate what exactly it means to be human. Shelley was influenced both by Christian ideas of man as created in God’s image and by eighteenth century views of moral character.  The Ethikrat’s approach is much influenced – as the conference theme indicates – by the ideal of human dignity. This is not a notion that is viewed with much favour by English-speaking philosophy. Yet it is an important, and influential, way of trying to think about what it means to be human and about what might be threatened by some technological advances.

Questions about whether we are best understood in genetic terms, and whether the human genome may be said to have a dignity, have figured large in responses to the new genomic editing possibilities. There are also crucial issues of governance – Victor could hopefully never have created a monster in a society whose science is efficiently and well regulated!

Yet the monster casts a long shadow on our thinking about the moral challenges of science. It is not obvious that this is the first time we have had to think about what it is to be human. But we certainly now are being pressed to make clearer what we need to preserve and whether, for instance, this is the dignity of humanity. The famous climactic struggle on the ice floes between Victor and his monstrous ‘child’ may be read as a metaphorical representation of that between humanity and those possibilities – be it Artificial Intelligence, be it cyborgs, be it genetically enhanced humans, be it artificial gametes, be it synthetic biology, be it ‘hybrid’ organisms – that science has the power to make real. I suspect that the pessimism of some about the broader struggle is overstated but the terms of the battle need properly to be understood. And in this the Nuffield Council, like the German Ethikrat, has a vital role to play. There need be no monsters but we do at least need to know what counts as monstrous.

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